Archive for the ‘Foreign Policy’ Category

Powder Keg

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

MOSCOW — Making predictions in Russia is a notoriously ridiculous activity, but it is especially tricky when it comes to guessing the direction of the anti-government protests that have captured Moscow’s imagination for the last six months. Feb. 4, for instance, was a holiday weekend and the weather forecast called for -8 degrees Fahrenheit. After three protests and a long Christmas vacation, who would go out in such cold? And yet, some 100,000 people came out to demand fair elections. Last month, just before the march and rally scheduled for May 6, I wondered whether it was worth going at all. It was the middle of a week-long holiday, Moscow was largely empty, and Putin had won by a landslide months ago; why waste an afternoon on a couple thousand hippies? Imagine my surprise when I saw some 70,000 people strolling down the city’s Yakimanka Street, and when the peaceful march devolved into violence and a days-long street war between protestors and the police.

And so, on the eve of Tuesday’s anti-Kremlin protest, I asked a colleague for her prognosis, mostly because everyone I knew was asking for mine and I wasn’t sure what to tell them. “This time I expect to be bad,” she said. “So I’m sure it will be like Hair!”

Which it was. A largely festive crowd of tens of thousands marched down Moscow’s boulevards, braving rain and thunder and a steamy, greenhouse-like heat that felt strange in the balmy northern capital. Nationalists, liberals, anarchists, and gays cheered and chanted and moved peacefully down the route approved by authorities; they filled out forms indicating what issues they’d like to see addressed through a referendum; they listened calmly to speeches from a stage on a street named after Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. It seemed more summer festival than anti-government protest.

Who could have predicted that this would be the sequel to the rocks and the tear gas and the billy clubs of May 6? Who would have thought that this would be the protest after the Russian parliament, dominated by the for-Putin, by-Putin United Russia Party, rushed through a draconian anti-protest law just in time for today’s rally? And, a day after state investigators broke into the apartments of various opposition leaders, handed them summons that would keep them from today’s march, and turned their apartments upside down (a reason many protesters cited for coming out today), after six months of demonstrations with little to show for it, after all this, who could have predicted such a merry, energetic gathering?

Six months and nine major rallies after a disputed parliamentary election set this movement off, very little is clear about where, exactly, this is all going. (Nor have the two sides figured out how to reliably count the crowds they gather: Tuesday’s estimates, for example, range from 15,000 to 200,000.) On Tuesday afternoon, the rally accepted a vague manifesto that calls for more peaceful protests and getting “like minds” into government positions. There is also an especially dreamy section called “After Putin.”

But so far, Putin shows no sign of ushering in an “after” era. This week’s Gestapo-like searches — which, according to his press secretary, Putin had full knowledge of — showed just how little time the man is spending on finding an exit strategy. And if the opposition is still a vague and motley crew, Putin also doesn’t seem to have found a good strategy for dealing with them. According to people who have seen him in recent weeks, the president is rattled but mostly contemptuous. These people, in his mind, are an infinitesimal minority, and do not have to be reckoned with. (“The government is a little confused. What are they against?” United Russia functionary Yuri Kotler told me shortly after the May 6 crackdown, feigning the same wonderment about the protesters. “During the day, they sit in their cafés, and then they get bored?”) The arrests and the searches all seem to be screw-tightening measures, but they have been half-hearted.

“They’re trial runs,” said Duma opposition deputy Gennady Gudkov, who has been active in the protests — and is losing his private security business as a result. “Let’s see what happens if we do this, or if we do that, or if we go there. They’re looking to see what the reaction will be.” (Gudkov, a former colonel in Soviet counterintelligence, seems to recognize these tactics from his KGB days.)

So what next? Last month, after the peaceful May 6 rally descended into violence — for which arrests continue — I wrote that we were about to see a radicalization of the protests. Yet even after a month of events that should have moved the protests in this direction — the arrests of people for wearing protest symbols, the rushing through of the anti-protest law, the quiet scrubbing down of media outlets of some of its more independent voices, the searches — Tuesday’s events did not bear me out. Does that mean that the protest movement won’t become radicalized in the future? I can’t say for sure, but all the factors for it are still there: an opposition with no access to a system that shows no sign of letting them, or of giving an inch. Historically, such set-ups have not ended well in Russia, whether for the system, the opposition, or the population at large. Moreover, if Gudkov is right and these are merely half-hearted trial balloons, what happens if the Kremlin really puts its all into something that looks like the Iranian response to the pro-democracy “green” movement of 2009? Will the opposition radicalize then?

There is also the economic factor to consider. The Russian economy is currently growing at a relatively healthy 3.5 percent, but it’s useful to recall the whopping growth rates Russia was posting just a few years ago. In 2007, the year before the world financial crisis hit Russia, Russia’s GDP growth topped 8 percent. It had been growing at that pace, buoyed by soaring commodity prices, for almost a decade, and it was not accidental that this was the decade in which Putin made his pact with the people: You get financial and consumer comforts, and we get political power. It’s hard to maintain such a pact when the goodies stop flowing.

Which brings us to the looming issue of the Russian budget deficit. To keep the people happy and out of politics, the Russian government has promised a lot of things to a lot of people. (Putin’s campaign promises alone are estimated by the Russian Central Bank to cost at least $170 billion.) To balance its budget with such magnanimity, Russia needs high oil prices, to the point where last month, the Ministry of Economic Development announced that an $80 barrel of oil would be a “crisis.” Keeping in mind that oil is now about $98 a barrel, and that Russia used to be able to balance its budgets just fine with oil at a fraction of the price, this doesn’t look too good for Putin. Factor in the worsening European crisis — Europe is still Russia’s biggest energy customer — and the fact that the state has put off unpopular but increasingly necessary reforms, like raising utility prices, and you find yourself looking at a powder keg.

“It’s not too late to save the situation, but I fear that by the fall, it will be too late,” Gudkov told me Tuesday afternoon as we moved with the throng. “Because by the fall, people will join who are not just concerned with politics, but people who have economic concerns. And it will be a rougher, tougher protest because the people who will join the protest are people who are less educated, less well-off, less informed. And they are people who don’t have a good understanding of the law and why it’s important to obey it.” That is, should an economic and budgetary crisis hit and have a tangible and extended impact on Russians outside the Moscow middle class, the resulting populist protests could swallow up this liberal, bourgeois festival of the past six months. And, though predicting things in Russia is a fool’s game, it never hurts to be a pessimist.

Powder Keg [FP]

The Undiplomat

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

MOSCOW — This winter, Michael McFaul discovered a number of surprising things about himself. He was imposing odious American holidays, like Valentine’s Day and Halloween, on the Russian people. He personally whisked Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny out of the country to Yale on a fellowship. He was inviting opposition figures to the U.S. Embassy “to get instructions.” And he was a pedophile. Or so his online tormentors claimed.

This was McFaul’s welcome to his new job: United States ambassador to Russia. Along with being attacked on state television and having picket lines across from the embassy, he was being followed — and harassed — by a red-haired reporter from NTV, the state-friendly channel. One day, a horde of activists from Nashi, a pro-Kremlin youth group, showed up at the embassy gates in white jumpsuits, and played dead: They did not want to be the victims of a revolution, like the unfortunates of Egypt, their posters said. As a result, the ambassador’s security had to be tightened.

“What I did not anticipate, honestly, was the degree, the volume, the relentless anti-Americanism that we’re seeing right now,” McFaul told me in February, a note of real hurt ringing in his normally chipper, measured voice. “That is odd for us. Because we have spent three years trying to build a different relationship with this country.” He added, almost stuttering, “I mean, I’m genuinely confused by it.”

A month later, he lost it.

The explosion came when McFaul arrived at the office of For Human Rights, an NGO in Moscow’s historic center. He was going to see his old friend, veteran human rights activist Lev Ponomarev, whom he’d known since he was an international studies graduate student running around perestroika-era Moscow. It may have been late March, but it was cold and the stuff that fell from the sky was neither snow nor rain: a long cry from McFaul’s California home. As ambassador, though, he didn’t have to bother with a jacket: he had his black Cadillac.

Had he known that the redhead from NTV would again be waiting for him with a camera crew, however, he may have dressed a little warmer.

What was McFaul going to discuss with Ponomarev?, the redhead asked as the camera bounced to follow the moving ambassador.

“Your ambassador moves about without this, without you getting in the way of his work,” McFaul said in slightly crooked Russian. He was clearly angry but maintained a wide, all-American smile. “And you guys are always with me. In my house! Are you not ashamed of this? You’re insulting your own country when you do this, don’t you understand?”

“We understand,” the redhead said, before going on to inquire which opposition politicians McFaul supported. McFaul, who had already turned to walk into the building, wheeled around, the huge smile now touched with a cartoonish disbelief.

“I met with your president yesterday,” he said, sarcastically nodding at her. “I support him, too. It’s the same logic. If I meet with him, it means I support him, right? It’s called diplomatic work. It’s how it works everywhere.”

He offered the redhead a formal interview, where they could “calmly” discuss everything and anything she wanted, before he remembered something. “I’m not wearing a coat. This is just rude!”

The redhead took no notice and pressed on. What had he discussed with opposition veteran Boris Nemtsov?

McFaul’s smile, now huge and aggressive, looked like that of a man unhinged. Didn’t they read his story in Moskovsky Komsomolets, he asked? Didn’t they read his Twitter feed?

And then he snapped.

“This turned out to be a wild country!” he burst out, reaching up to the gray heavens. “This isn’t normal!” This behavior was unacceptable, he went on, in all “normal” countries: the United States, Britain, Germany, even China. How did they manage to be everywhere he was, anyway? How did they know his schedule? This, he contended, his voice rising, was in violation of the Geneva Convention. (In the heat of the moment, he misspoke: He meant the Vienna Convention, which tightly regulates the obligations of the states sending ambassadors, and those receiving them.)

In fact, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, passed by the United Nations in 1961, stipulates certain things — the inviolability of embassy grounds, as well as of ambassadors’ communications, the duty of the receiving country to ensure the ability of the ambassador to work unmolested, and “to prevent any attack on his person, freedom, and dignity” — that seemed to have been overlooked by Moscow in the last few months.

And the incident in front of the For Human Rights office was merely the last straw: There were rumors of mysterious individuals trespassing on the grounds of Spaso House, the ambassador’s residence, of repeated security threats. The apparent interception of his schedule was almost confirmed by NTV, which said, through a spokeswoman that “the ubiquity of NTV can be explained by its broad network of informants, which is well known to every public figure in this country.”

Those informants — whoever they are and wherever they sit — of course obviate the need for any illicit activity on any redheaded reporter’s part, which is why, the spokeswoman said, “NTV’s employees obviously do not hack into anyone’s phones or read e-mails.”

And though the State Department filed an official complaint with the Russian Foreign Ministry after the NTV tussle, it was McFaul’s undiplomatic lament about the wildness of the country that made headlines in Moscow. On Twitter, he wrote, “I misspoke in bad Russian. Did not mean to say ‘wild country.’ Meant to say NTV actions ‘wild.’ I greatly respect Russia.” And in an interview a few days later, he went even further, saying, “I really regret that I expressed myself inaccurately.” And then he pulled out the card he hoped he wouldn’t have to use: “I’m not a professional diplomat.”

And just when things quieted down after the presidential elections in March, McFaul stumbled into another mess. Last week, while discussing the successes of the reset, he told an audience of students at a Moscow university that Russia had “bribed” the Kyrgyz to kick the U.S. off its miliatry base at Manas. (The United States, he said, also bribed the Kyrgyz.) The Russian Foreign Ministry lashed out, attacking McFaul on Twitter late Monday and accusing him of “spreading blatant falsehoods.” On Tuesday, Putin’s foreign policy advisor weighed in, saying, “Ambassadors need to work on a positive agenda because there are already so many agents trying to ruin the atmosphere.” McFaul, again on the defensive, stood by his speech in a blog post, but admitted, “Maybe I shouldn’t have spoken so colorfully and bluntly. On that, I agree and will work harder to speak more diplomatically.”

* * *

When he arrived in Moscow on Jan. 13 to take up his new post, Ambassador McFaul was just being Mike: the easy-going American guy whose informality disarms most everyone; the deft Washington operator who has both neoconservatives and liberals convinced that he’s their guy; the Russia expert famous for his wide-reaching and motley network both in Moscow and in the United States; the man whose swearing-in ceremony — normally a staid and sparsely-attended affair — was packed to the gills with hundreds of friends and well-wishers, as well as the ambassadorial corps of nearly the entire former Soviet Union. In a break with tradition and protocol, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a glowing ode to McFaul and swore him in.

And yet, in Moscow, something was off. The McFaul mojo seemed suddenly powerless. Shortly after his arrival, McFaul stopped by the bar at the Marine House, on the embassy grounds, to have a beer. The regulars — marines and embassy hoi polloi — were rooted to their seats, frozen with fear — they’d never caroused with the ambassador before. When he joined the pick-up basketball game at the embassy one night, one of the Russians approached him afterwards and joked, “I didn’t realize I was playing basketball with the anti-Christ.”

I met McFaul early on a sunny, freezing Sunday afternoon in February. The staff scurried around, turning on lamps and vacuuming the rich indigo carpets of Spaso House, a sprawling yellow mansion off the old Arbat Street. McFaul came down to meet me in baggy jeans and a blue sweater, a water stain on his belly. Instead of shoes, or even slippers, he wore washed-out blue socks. As we settled into the plush, floral maroon couches of the library, a Russian butler in a tuxedo brought us coffee on official china and then began to stoke the fireplace. “Hey, howyadoin’?” McFaul said to the butler, who didn’t know how to respond.

“When I was here as a kid in 1983, there was all this outrageous stuff,” McFaul explained when I asked him about whether this anti-Americanism was really so new. “But it didn’t reverberate as fast to America as it does today. Because of Twitter and Facebook and YouTube, it moves fast. I can tell you from our government’s perspective: At the highest levels, they’re paying attention. And there’s this notion that I get told privately, that, hey, don’t pay attention to this election stuff. We’ll get back to our interests later. Well, that’s going to be a little hard to do because it’s gotten so offensive. And personal. They have to understand that this message that is intended for people here is also being heard at the White House.”

“It makes them look weak in the West,” McFaul says. “Man, we thought this was a more serious country. This is not serious stuff.”

Like other American officials in Moscow, he reminds me that, three weeks after his May inauguration, reinstalled President Vladimir Putin is going to have to travel to the United States for a G-8 summit, and a tête-à-tête with Barack Obama. (A meeting that Putin, perhaps tellingly, canceled.) According to various State Department sources, the anti-American propaganda and personal attacks on McFaul — who served as Obama’s close adviser on Russia matters before being tapped for the ambassadorial post — have severely tested the patience of both McFaul’s bosses: Clinton and Obama.

“This didn’t even happen in the Soviet Union,” McFaul goes on, a small rage rising in his voice. “Let’s be clear about that. This is breaching diplomatic protocol. Imagine the outrage if this happened to the Russian ambassador in Washington. It’s just not the way countries interact with each other. It’s not respectful.”

At the same time, however, McFaul is not your traditional ambassador. Not only is he not a career diplomat, unusual for such a sensitive post, but he came in at a time when the State Department has been pushing its representatives all over the world to actively use social media. In McFaul’s hands, the directive has become a flamethrower. It’s hard to remember a time when an American ambassador to Russia plunged into his work so boldly at such a politically precarious time: McFaul arrived just a month after Putin accused Clinton of stirring up regime change in Russia. On his second day, he had opposition activists over to the embassy. (The meeting, McFaul explains, had been scheduled long in advance of his arrival to coincide with the visit of Deputy Secretary of State William Burns.) Not a week into the job, he was tweeting at Navalny. He publicly invited himself onto the TV shows of Russia’s reigning diva-loud-mouths, Tina Kandelaki and Ksenia Sobchak. He accused Margarita Simonyan, the editor of the English-language pro-Kremlin channel Russia Today, of lying. “That was only because I couldn’t get the phrase ‘untrue statements’ into 140 characters,” McFaul explains.

For someone whom friends and colleagues unanimously describe as a man who glides easily between all possible worlds, who is a keen reader of character and situation, McFaul’s transition to diplomacy has been surprisingly bumpy. “I think he may have not totally understood the ramifications of his new position,” says Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, McFaul’s former colleague at Stanford University and co-author on many of his scholarly articles.

“A good diplomat is going to say enough and start enough conversations that will help make his case, not get into arguments that permanently cast him as an enemy,” says Stephen Sestanovich, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations and a veteran of the diplomatic world. He is also McFaul’s close friend. “A diplomat has to figure out the terrain he’s operating on and to make sure he makes good use of it. He knows there are a lot minefields out there and he has to be careful.” He adds, “He probably responds to things on Twitter a little differently than I would. But that’s Mike, and in general it works for him.”

Alec Ross, a senior advisor to Clinton and one of the architects of this policy of social media diplomacy, disagrees that direct engagement with the people via Facebook and the like sets American diplomats up for disaster. “I don’t agree that it’s going over Putin’s head,” he told me. “Russian officials are very aggressive users of social media themselves. Look at [Russian Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev, look at [Russian diplomat and politician Dmitry] Rogozin. They started tweeting years before Ambassador McFaul. And the content of his Twitter feed is about his playing basketball. This is not exactly the Radio Free Europe tower.” Ross made sure to add, “Ambassador McFaul enjoys the full support of the State Department.”

And yet this initiative, coupled with McFaul’s unshy public image, played right into the hands of the Kremlin, suddenly rickety and feeling pressed by this winter’s pro-democracy protests, and just when it needed a big and convincing win in the March presidential elections. “They’re using McFaul as a resource,” says Sergei Markov, a United Russia deputy and trustee of Vladimir Putin. “It would be a sin not to use it.”

McFaul, for his part, is understandably at a loss. He is, after all, the architect of the “reset,” the man who made Russia an unlikely foreign policy priority for Obama, the man who arranged the spy swap in the summer of 2010 to keep it from torpedoing Russian-American relations, who twisted Georgia’s arm to keep it from blocking Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization, the man who, even as officials of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party attacked him — post-election — for meddling in Russian affairs, was in Washington, lobbying Congress to repeal the Soviet-era Jackson-Vanik amendment, which prohibits normal trade relations and has long been a sticking point in Russian-American relations. And after all this, he has found himself the target of a dirty and personal attack, orchestrated — or, at least, condoned — by the very people with whom he had worked closely for the last three years, people he thought he knew.

On that bright Sunday afternoon, McFaul talked about the things he and “the president” – Obama — had accomplished so far, and the tougher tasks still left on their plates. He talked about the differences in Russian and American approaches to diplomacy — one ceremonious and legalistic, the other loosey-goosey. But the virulent attacks clearly stung him in a personal way, and at times he sounded like a lover scorned. “They’re the ones who have changed,” he said, shaking his head and spreading his arms in a kind of stunned helplessness. “We’ve changed nothing. Zero.”

* * *

McFaul was born in 1963, in Glasgow, Montana, a tiny town near the border with Canada, but he grew up on the other side of the state, in Butte. The city is famous for its gold, silver, and copper mines, and for the Berkeley pit, a lake of acidic water laced with heavy metals so poisonous that it kills whole flocks of foul unwise enough to rest there. (It was once a copper mine.) As a scholar, McFaul can appreciate Butte as an interesting town, one with parallels to contemporary Russia. “In the 19th century, it was the fourth largest city west of the Mississippi,” he says. “There were oligarchs in Butte, and they made a lot of money there and they shipped it to New York and lived there. There was a similar tension between the metropole and the regions,” referring to the Russia outside of Moscow.

Things looked less interesting closer to home, however. Butte was classic middle America, a rough mining town where social status was directly proportional to athletic prowess. Even now, sitting in the ambassador’s sitting room at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow during another interview, 30 years later, McFaul can boast of the fact that the high school wrestling team swept the national championships 17 years in a row. He demurred when I asked him what sport he played. “These are delicate moments for me!” he exclaims. It was, he says, “a pretty rough experience growing up there.” (McFaul ran track.)

The pain eased two years later, in 1978, when the family moved 90 miles down the road to Bozeman. McFaul’s father had quit his job as a music teacher, and decided to become a professional musician. He would end up spending decades on the road, but in those days, his steadiest gig was at the Ramada Inn in Bozeman. He split his time between the Ramada and Butte, where his wife and children still lived. Bozeman was a university town and, in addition to reuniting the family, the McFauls figured they would have an easier time putting their five kids through college if they could live at home. Three months after moving to a trailer in Bozeman, McFaul’s father lost his gig at the Ramada. “He virtually never played in Bozeman again,” McFaul says.

Despite the family’s financial straits, the young McFaul underwent a renaissance in Bozeman. He discovered the town’s thriving counter culture; he was elected student body president. He took the debate class where, at the height of the Cold War, he argued for the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment. It was his first exposure to foreign policy and Soviet-American relations. “That’s when I developed the view that our policy toward the Soviets was wrong,” he recalls. “I had what in retrospect what I would call a naïve view, that if we just could communicate and get to know people better, we could reduce tensions.”

Two years later, when he got to Stanford, he signed up for introduction to international relations and Russian. “I was horrible at it,” he says of the latter. “I hated it. I still do. I’m not good at languages. But my whole motivation was to go to the Soviet Union.”

In June 1983, after his second year at Stanford — and two years of Russian — McFaul arrived in Leningrad. It was the first time he had traveled abroad, and yet the leap from California to Leningrad seemed smaller than the one he had made from Bozeman to Stanford. His arrival in wealthy Palo Alto had politicized him and moved him further to the left. “There were rich people in Montana, but that’s because they have a lot of land,” McFaul recalls, slipping his foot out of a clunky black shoe. “They all drive pick-up trucks and wear blue jeans.” Stanford was different. “The first day of freshman year, I met a guy who had 90 Grateful Dead tapes. That was like a sign of wealth to me. I just never met anybody who had 90 tapes of anything! That blew my mind.”

Leningrad in the early 1980s had the right dash of gritty authenticity. That summer, McFaul experienced the city’s famous white nights. He waited in line for ice cream with chocolate sprinkles; he argued with his American friends about unemployment and trickle-down economics.

That summer, McFaul laid the foundations of what would become a wide social network in Russia. He made a local friend, Yuri, with whom he snuck into underground jazz concerts. He became acquainted with the local refuseniks and the farsovschiki, or black-market speculators. “They’re the ones you could meet because they had business to do with you,” McFaul says. “Yes, they were taking our blue jeans and changing our dollars, and it was all business. But they also listened to Led Zeppelin and did things that college kids want to do.”

The next time McFaul came back to the Soviet Union, in 1985, it was for his semester abroad, at Moscow’s State Institute of Russian Language, part of the city’s prestigious Moscow State University. “That took the edge off the romance,” he says. The cafeteria had given someone food poisoning before the foreign students’ arrival and remained shuttered for the rest of the semester. “It was a struggle to get calories,” McFaul remembers.

His saviors were the African students he roomed with. They fed him homemade stews and taught him how to eat something rarely eaten in Middle America: vegetables. McFaul was still socializing with Moscow’s refuseniks and farsovschiki, but it was the African crew that became the fulcrum of his time in Soviet Moscow. Life was hard for them, McFaul recalls: racism, sporadic violence. “But those guys knew how to throw parties. They could access beer. Buying a beer in 1985 was not easy to do in this country. And they knew how to do it.”

The star of the crew was Fani, the Nigerian. “He was the Michael Jackson of Moscow,” McFaul grins. “The best disco was at [Stalinist agricultural expo center] VDNKh. What’s that hotel called? Cosmos! Is it still there?” He remembers Fani bribing the doormen to get their friend Natasha, a student at the elite state diplomatic academy, MGIMO, into the club. “The Nigerian guy was sneaking in the MGIMO students, in their own country,” he says. Through Fani, McFaul met the children of the elite of Eastern Europe — they were friends with the son of the Polish defense minister — and through them, the MGIMO kids. “They reminded me a lot of the elite right now,” he says of the gilded youth of the Soviet Union’s twilight. “They liked their lifestyle, they were appreciative of what they have, they don’t want to lose it, but they also know the system’s limitations and want more.” But he adds, “they were scared to death of real dissidents.”

McFaul didn’t meet any real dissidents on that trip, but he became interested in the African question, and would end up writing his doctoral dissertation on Soviet and American influences on revolutionary movements in southern Africa. “They came to Moscow on these scholarships to learn communism,” McFaul says of his African friends. “Nothing was a more powerful tool of making them pro-American than the experience that most of them were having here.” McFaul also says those hungry months made him increasingly anti-communist.

At the end of his semester in Moscow, he shipped off to Nigeria, where a Stanford student named Donna Norton — his then girlfriend, now wife — was doing research on urban-to-rural migration. Fani met him in Lagos. It turned out he was the son of the general secretary of the Communist Party of Nigeria. “In all my time here, I never knew it,” McFaul says. “He’s an entrepreneur now. He’s making a lot of money in Nigerian-Russian trade.”

* * *

When I met Sergei Markov, the United Russia Party foreign-policy hawk and Putin enthusiast, he was on crutches and had a cast on his left foot — a motorcycle accident in January had left him with a broken ankle. We talked as he waited in the freezing green room of a Russian television studio. He had set up an invisible conveyer belt from the refreshments table to his mouth. “The reset has fulfilled its mission, which was to remove the foolishness of the Bush era,” he said, inhaling a mushroom pastry in one bite. “Now it’s time for the Americans to meet us halfway.” That means: Get rid of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, develop their military strategy with Russia’s interests in mind, and change the anti-Russian “regimes” in Latvia and Estonia. (How? Well, that is up to the Americans, he told me.)

Even with these beliefs, Markov thinks McFaul is the right man for the job. “He’s the perfect representative of America,” he told me, devouring a cucumber spear. “He is open, friendly, generous. He’s very democratic. He has a strong moral compass, and he really wants to help.” Markov knows all this firsthand.

It is one of those strange twists of fate that this man was once McFaul’s close friend and colleague. The two were observers of the ferment of Moscow in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Markov was a philosophy graduate student at Moscow State and active in Democratic Russia, an early shoot of the Russian democracy movement, and McFaul was studying international relations at Oxford. Together, they chronicled the collapse of the Soviet Union, interviewing scores of participants in the events of the time for a book called Russia’s Unfinished Revolution. (Markov’s then wife earned some extra money transcribing the interviews.) They had tea at Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s tiny apartment in Moscow’s northern suburbs. They went to see the hard-core “Pamyat” (or “Memory”) movement, where one activist greeted the two students in full SS regalia, and another nearly killed Markov for accidentally sitting on the group’s flag. Markov recalls McFaul noting afterwards that it was his first time seeing a real racist, in the flesh.

Markov began to work with the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute — a decade-long gig. He went to McFaul’s wedding in California, where he — unsuccessfully — hit on another Russia scholar and friend of McFaul’s, Condoleezza Rice. In 1994, McFaul and Markov helped found the Moscow Carnegie Center, which hosted regular discussions and seminars featuring a novel feature to draw an audience: free dinner. A few years later, Markov was pushed out of Carnegie because he was viewed as the propagandist of the second Chechen War. McFaul defended him and the two have remained friends to this day, “which can be kind of difficult at times,” says a mutual friend who had been part of their crew in the 1990s. “The last time I was in Washington, I stayed with McFaul,” Markov told me. “We debated vigorously.”

But if McFaul is famous for his ability to befriend anyone, he is also famous for a hot, quick temper (as the redhead from NTV can well attest). At one academic conference, McFaul got into a long, full-throated throwdown with Stephen Kotkin, the famous Soviet historian, because he had criticized McFaul’s 2008 essay in Foreign Affairs, co-authored with Stoner-Weiss, his Stanford colleague, and called “The Myth of the Authoritarian Model: How Putin’s Crackdown Holds Russia Back.” (Someone from the Kremlin called the two authors to tell them, “Mr. Putin has read the article, and it was not entirely to his liking.”) But McFaul’s views on Russia escape easy categorization. He seems to dish it out on a purely egalitarian basis. Former Bush administration official David Kramer, who runs Freedom House, an organization known for its very anti-Kremlin views, frequently squabbles with his old friend McFaul. “I’ve gotten some very long emails from him after I’ve written some things,” Kramer told me. “And, yes, it had some colorful language sprinkled in.”

And yet, McFaul has been able to hop between the lily pads of academia, politics, and journalism. After a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford, he stayed on to complete a DPhil, the rough British equivalent of a Ph.D. This put him at odds with many in the political science community in the United States, where the methods rely less on local knowledge — as per the British model — but on computation and a strict methodology. “He kicked the door open into the American system in a way I haven’t seen,” says Stoner-Weiss. “Look at how many DPhils you see at elite American universities. There aren’t that many. And the fact that he got tenure without doing hi-tech methodology tells you how good he was.” (McFaul puts it this way: “I went to Oxford so I’m considered a Neanderthal.”)

If he was able to win over the gray beards of the academy with his mastery of the subject, he was also the friend of every Western journalist covering Russia, past and present. Sometimes he managed to beat journalists at their own game. In 1996, when Boris Yeltsin was facing an uncertain election, the hardliners around him — Alexander Korzhakov and Oleg Soskovets — were at times encouraging the sick old man to stall the election or call it off entirely. “They didn’t talk to Western correspondents much, and we never knew what they were up to, or thinking, ” recalls David Hoffman, Washington Post bureau chief in Moscow during the 1990s. McFaul, meanwhile, had no problem penetrating the barrier: Once, Korzhakov and Soskovets even brought him back to one of their dachas to drink and talk politics. “I was terribly jealous,” Hoffman says. “I also wanted to meet with these guys. They sent an official Volga for him!” Hoffman’s jealousy subsided when he found out the reason for the Yeltsin crew’s hospitality. They had thought McFaul was CIA.

* * *

McFaul’s entry into politics came in the run-up to the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. Long at home in policy circles in Washington, he had become a foreign-policy advisor to John Edwards, who was running against Obama in the primaries. (Edwards later flamed out in scandal, admitting he fathered a child with a campaign staffer while his wife was dying of cancer, and McFaul now tries to downplay their relationship.) Then he switched to Obama. With the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008, McFaul’s share of Obama’s attention span grew. He was able to convince the president-to-be that repairing the Russian-American relationship would be a great opportunity to set the new administration apart from that of George W. Bush. It would be another way to improve America’s image on the international stage, an image Bush had done so much to mangle.

McFaul relished the role of advisor, joining the White House staff as a senior director on the National Security Council. He became simply “McFaul” to Obama. In his office in Washington, in the Old Executive Office Building, he had a poster of a New Republic magazine cover that showed Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, leaning over Obama’s desk in the Oval Office. Once, when I visited McFaul there, he explained it to me: The illustration had actually been based on a picture of him, but the designers at the magazine swapped Emanuel’s head for his. McFaul loved to talk about his experiences negotiating with the Russians, about accompanying the president to summits, about getting to know the Russian mucketymucks and to rub elbows with them. He loved participating in an historical process and gathering anecdotes along the way: He can tell a long story about how the “burger summit” between Obama and Medvedev happened, and how Vice President Joseph Biden got on the phone and boxed Saakashvili’s ears after Georgian state television led an evening newscast with a fake Russian invasion.

But by 2011, his family was itching to return to Stanford. When McFaul broke the news to Obama, the president offered to make him ambassador — a strange move, given how much the Russians loved then ambassador and Russophile John Beyrle. But Obama was keen to keep McFaul: As his domestic agenda ran up against an intransigent and radicalized Congress — which majorly delayed McFaul’s confirmation — and American policy in Middle East went up in flames, Russia was one of the few major successes that Obama could point to.

At first, McFaul spoke of himself as “an accidental ambassador” — a phrase he says he is trying not to use anymore. And the early miscalculation — and Russia’s icy reception — aside, McFaul is coming to relish this new role, too. “Actually, I think that Mike has become a pretty disciplined diplomat,” says Sestanovich. “He does this ‘aw, shucks I’m not a professional diplomat,’ but he’s gotten pretty good at managing public statements, at managing public-policy process. He’s found his balance pretty quickly.” Nor does Sestanovich buy into the talk of McFaul’s naïveté. “My children grew up hearing Mike talk about knife fights in Montana mining towns,” he says. “The idea that the world is dominated by misunderstanding that can just be dispelled by dialogue is not Mike’s worldview.”

* * *

“There’s this notion out here that all I taught was regime change,” McFaul told me that February afternoon at Spaso House, referring to the infamous commentary on state-owned Channel 1, which alleged that McFaul, an expert in revolutions, was coming to finish the job he started in 1991. McFaul did, in fact, teach a class in revolutions at Stanford, but, he points out, he also taught a course on U.S.-Russia relations and on the political economy of the post-communist world. As for the Channel 1 allegations, McFaul says they are “absolute nonsense.”

“I’m not here to foment a revolution,” he says. “If we were here to foment revolution, we’d be doing very different things. I know exactly what we did in other countries. I’ve written a lot about how external actors impact on domestic change and the punchline of most of my work is that it’s always incredibly marginal and, in big countries, almost negligible.”

Given all that’s happened, does he feel that the reset is stalling, or dead? Or, given the extent to which simple spite and wounded pride factor into Russian foreign policy, that it was a naïve endeavor to begin with? “Our policy is that we think it’s in our national interest to have governments that are open, more transparent, and more accountable to their people,” he says, citing the widely held theory that democratic countries are more likely to be at peace with each other.

But at times this winter, the reset has looked more and more like the jolting dance of unwilling partners who occasionally — and perhaps purposefully — step on each other’s feet. On one hand, Medvedev told Obama in Seoul in March that this was the best Russian-American relations had ever been. Then came the hot-mic incident — Republican challenger Mitt Romney went at Obama for asking America’s “geopolitical enemy No. 1” for “room to maneuver” — and Medvedev’s testy response. He asked “all U.S. presidential candidates” to “check the time — it is now 2012, not the mid-1970s.” Meanwhile, pro-Kremlin youth groups were harassing Obama’s ambassador to Moscow.

In the meantime, a split seems to have developed inside the State Department as a result of all of this. Career Foreign Service officers are appalled at McFaul’s undiplomatic behavior — what kind of ambassador gets down and argues with a sham television reporter? — while McFaul’s big bosses still insist he’s the right man for the job.

But the incident with NTV proved “a breaking point,” according to one U.S. official in Moscow. Afterward — and after the State Department filed an official complaint with the Russian Foreign Ministry — the Russian promise that the harassment would die down after the presidential elections came true. Shortly after Putin’s inauguration, in May, McFaul boasted, “It’s the last time I ever saw those guys.”

The State Department, for its part, has decided to show a unified face and step up its public defense of McFaul. Speaking amid the ashes of the controversy surrounding McFaul’s Kyrgyz “bribe” comment, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland made clear that the Americans weren’t about to change anything. “He speaks plainly. He speaks clearly. He doesn’t mince words. He’s not a professional diplomat,” she said. “I think that for the Russian government, the fact that he speaks clearly when things are going well and he speaks clearly when they’re going less well is something that they’re having to get used to.”

The Undiplomat [FP]

Vladimir the Unstable

Monday, May 7th, 2012

MOSCOW — On Monday, just before noon, Vladimir Putin will get into a black limousine with black windows, and, flanked by a flock of cops on motorcycles — his cavalry — sweep into the city from the west, through empty, ghostly streets. He’ll pass St. Basil’s iconic domes, and drive through the Spassky Gate of the Kremlin walls, step out of the limo onto a red carpet — the first proof that he was in that car at all — salute the guards and go inside, to a grand, chandeliered room, where he will take the oath of office. He will have performed this ritual for the third time.

There will be no cheering crowds, no waving flags along his route. Instead, the images the world will see of Putin’s inauguration will be the walk down the opulent hall, the man with his hand on the Russian constitution, and the violent protests of the previous afternoon. We’ll see the images that, in the era of Twitter and Facebook, have become instantly iconic: the black police batons slicing over the barricades and through the smoke to hack at protesters; the police special forces officer dragging a young woman by her neck; the police officer huffing after battle, his face streaming with blood. We’ll see the videos of the rocks flying and the bottles flying and the smoke bombs flying and the batons raining down on people’s kidneys. We’ll see the photos of toppled port-a-potties serving as makeshift barricades, of kicking young men, bellies and rumps exposed, being dragged by the police into waiting armored incarceration vans.

What the world won’t see is the peaceful, buoyant march down Bolshaya Yakimanka Street, just south of the Kremlin, which brought out at least 70,000 people on a day when many Muscovites had abandoned the city for the holiday weekend. They chanted “Russia without Putin!” and carried the witty posters that have marked this winter’s protest movement. It was a largely pointless event: Aided by fraud or not, Putin had already won, and won in a landslide. Everything he’s done and said in the last five months indicates that the man is not looking for an exit strategy. He will try his damndest to serve the full, six-year term — at least. During his recent address to the Russian parliament last month, his last as prime minister, someone asked Putin if it wouldn’t be a bad idea to strike “in a row” from the Russian constitution. That formulation is what necessitated the elaborate loop-de-loop of Putin stepping down to become prime minister for four years, while a seat-warmer named Dmitry Medvedev tried to make Russians and the rest of the world believe that he wasn’t really a seat warmer. “I think it’s reasonable,” Putin said in response to the tee-ball suggestion. “We should probably think about it.”

And yet on Sunday, people came out in droves. “I’d be ashamed not to go,” one young woman told me. “My grandchildren will ask me, ‘And what did you do when this was happening in Russia?’ I had to go so that I wouldn’t be embarrassed by my answer.” An older woman, a semi-retired courier missing most of her teeth said, “If not me, who? You get it.” The point was to show Putin that, on the eve of his sumptuous, champagne-soaked inauguration, as another young protester told me, “He may have won, but he didn’t win. He didn’t win us.”

When the cheering, chanting, motley phalanx — of hipsters, nationalists, anarchists, pensioners, and the middlest of the middle class — finished its parade route, it found its way onto Bolotnaya Square — the site of the day’s rally, as well as of two previous such events — was blocked by a column of OMON special police, and a column of the radical Left Front activists. The corridor to get to Bolotanaya shrank steadily, especially when Sergei Udaltsov, the Left Front leader and organizer of the protest, called for a sit-in with anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny. People didn’t have a chance to sit for long. In an instant, there was shoving and pushing and the people who had just been sitting were up, elbowing and screaming in panic. It was all downhill from there: the smoke bombs, the rocks, the glass bottles, the tear gas, the blood, the spreading of violence into the surrounding streets as nationalists and anarchists went chanting down the avenues, and the police chased them into cafes and metro stations to twist them into headlocks and into overflowing police vans.

It’s not clear who started the violence. There were smoke bombs streaking through the sky in both directions, and the protesters quickly lost their diversity: They became, almost uniformly, angry, young, and male, some of them wearing the signature masks of soccer hooligans. They resisted not only the calls of the police to disperse, but of the organizers to get them into a small camp of tents (an attempt to stay for days, as the protesters in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution did in 2004-2005). “Who is that guy in a blue shirt?” one of the protest organizers barked, pointing to a young man who kept stirring up those around him not to move an inch. “He’s a provocateur! Get him out of here!”

There were definitely provocateurs in the crowd, but whose? Dmitry Gudkov, a Duma deputy with the Just Russia party who has been active in the protest movement, said afterwards that he heard rumors of officers in the notorious anti-extremism wing of the police briefing a group of soccer hooligans — the state’s weapon of choice — in a café before the rally began. But that couldn’t be confirmed. He himself saw young men in black masks charge the police cordon during the sit-in. But he couldn’t confirm whether they were state-hired goons or simply the young men of which the nationalists and anarchists have plenty in their ranks, the young men, full of testosterone, who are only too happy to come out and rage against the machine.

In some ways — indeed, in all the important ways — it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the only lasting images — and memories — of yesterday’s protest will be the blood and the brute force. And, in that, a line has been crossed. The protest movement, once festive and peaceful, then downtrodden but channeled into concrete, effective actions like election monitoring and contesting municipal elections across the country, has become one marked by and met with violence. It has, in other words, entered a period of radicalization, and here’s a tell-tale sign: In the run up to Sunday, the organizers of previous rallies pooh-poohed the May 6 event or were on vacation, while the more radical figures in the movement — like Udaltsov, a Stalinist — took the wheel. And this, of course, plays right into the hands of Putin and company, who have been insisting for months that radical agents bent on creating chaos and bringing color revolutions to Russia, not the liberal middle class, are the core of the protest movement, and should be quashed like the enemies that they are.

The pattern that’s emerging here — the ossification of the Kremlin, the hardening of the opposition — is one that we’ve seen a number of times in recent Russian history. It’s also one that does not end well for Russia. The famously ruthless Bolsheviks who seized power in November 1917 had been radicalized by years of being forced underground by the repressive system of Nicholas II. In response to the social unrest born of rapid industrialization and an unresponsive political system, Nicholas cracked down and insisted on his divine supremacy. The political reforms he did allow — a weak parliament that existed for barely two years — was window dressing that only discredited the process of constructive opposition and political debate. It disillusioned both the establishment and the opposition. Nicholas’s secret police and Siberian prison camps not only did not deter, they inspired. In 1902, imagining what the ideal revolutionary party would look like, Vladimir Lenin wrote that it should be run by a “few professionals, as highly trained and experienced as our security police.” Josef Stalin, who escaped from tsarist prisons in Siberia seven times, made sure no one would escape from the ones he built to replace them. He populated them with anyone who could in any way be interpreted as being in dialogue with the state. By the late 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev tried to gently reform the rusty Soviet state, the people who had pushed for “socialism with a human face” 30 years earlier had been so marginalized and criminalized by the state that they come to see it as an enemy — which, of course, is exactly how the state viewed them. Consequently, they were not interested in its evolution; they were only happy to see it disappear completely.

What happens, in other words, is that a paralysis sets in: Those in power see compromise as weakness, while those forced onto the streets by its absence see it as selling out. And the more each side digs in, the less a constructive solution becomes possible. The only way out becomes a revolution and the complete destruction of the status quo. And, as the Russian experience of 1917 and 1991 showed us, striving for a clean slate and a fresh start has a very steep cost.

We saw the seeds of this process in the winter. Addressing a pool of Russian journalists on Dec. 24, four days after an estimated 100,000 Muscovites protested on Sakharov Avenue, an unprecedented number for the past two decades, Putin shrugged and said, “there’s no one to talk to.” In the preceding weeks, he had dismissed the protesters as U.S. State Department pawns, as provocateurs bent on violence, and as the howling, delusional monkeys in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. He even nervously admitted to mistaking the symbol of the protest — a white ribbon pinned to the lapel — for a condom. It didn’t help, of course, when the protests kicked off Dec. 5, Navalny roared into the microphone with the promise that “we will cut their throats.” Or that, in the two days of protests that followed, police arrested nearly a thousand people in Moscow.

As Putin puts his hand on the constitution and celebrates with a feast of duck and avocado puree and sturgeon steaks and the finest Russian crus, Russia will stand at a crossroads. The opposition can go the way of excruciatingly slow but constructive civic activism of past months, or it can splinter into the hard and the angry on one side, and, on the other, the majority that is turned off by their tactics. (And we’ve seen how that’s worked out for Russia before.) As for the Kremlin, it seems to have staked out a clear and definitive position. Putin, with his diving for ancient urns and shooting tigers for the public’s adoring gaze, seems bent on comic, sinister ossification, perhaps à la Qaddafi. And while the streets of Moscow filled with the spreading chaos of Bolotnaya, his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was even more direct. “In my opinion, the police acted gently,” he said in an interview with Dozhd television. “I would like them to be harsher.” Hearing this, an opposition blogger tweeted: He wants them to be harsher, he wrote. “What are they going to do, shoot?”

Vladimir the Unstable [FP]

The Last Waltz

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

MOSCOW – On a cold and sunny Saturday afternoon, thousands of Muscovites came out to protest the March 4 presidential elections in which Vladimir Putin swept to his third presidential term with more than 63 percent of the vote. It was not the huge, euphoric, smiling crowd that thronged the city’s squares in December and February. But it was also not the angry, sullen crowd that had come out to Pushkin Square the day after the election.

Many hadn’t come at all, either because they were tired of coming out — this was the sixth large protest in three months — or because they were out of town for a long weekend. Those who did show up seemed deflated. Gone was the electricity in the air, the witty posters. Many had come not because of a new, giddy sense of empowerment that fueled the initial protests, or even out of anger over a crooked electoral system, but because they felt they simply had to.

“If I didn’t come today, it would mean that I deserve this government,” Elena, a professor at Moscow State University, told me, adding that she was coming to the inexorable conclusion that she wanted to emigrate.

“Without steps to change and enforce the law, I don’t see a point in these protests,” said another Elena, a young lawyer who was there with her boss. He did not have much faith in the political reforms proposed by outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev — gubernatorial elections and an easing of party registration rules.

“I think that it’s important not to lose what we’ve gained in these months,” a white-collar worker in his thirties named Petr said. And yet, he felt the momentum dissipating. “Of course, we’re going to keep coming to these protests,” he said of himself and his friends, who both work in state-owned television. “But I think this format is starting to feel a little old. I think the protest organizers need to think of something else.”

The rally’s organizers, for their part, seem to have heard their constituency. “I think that, with this, the three-month cycle [of protests] has ended,” journalist and ring leader of the rallies’ organizing committee Serguei Parkhomenko told the press. “There will be new events, without a doubt, but only when there is a need for them. We’re not going to organize them automatically.” Members of the organizing committee have spoken of flash mobs, like last month’s Big White Circle, a smiling human chain around the 10-mile circumference of Moscow’s Garden Ring road, and events with a more aggressive bent.

And indeed, after a week of soul-searching and post-mortems of “the revolution,” the rally felt like the closing chord of a long and ebullient improvisation. Earlier this week, at a press conference held by the Voters’ League, organized by several public intellectuals to help train election monitors, writer Boris Akunin — another central figure in this winter’s movement — declared the “romantic” period of the protests over. A couple of days earlier, the police violently broke up a protest by a few hundred people who tried to stay on Pushkin Square after a permitted mass rally, and Putin congratulated the police on their “professional” behavior. “I think people have understood that they can’t charge the OMON with white balloons and ribbons,” Akunin said at the press conference, referring to the special police that enforce order at such events, and to the ubiquitous symbols of the protests. “Civil society will begin to develop along a different trajectory, along a trajectory of self-organization, and fighting for victory in local elections,” Akunin added.

If past protests were organized around the vague demand of fair elections — or new parliamentary elections — and to chant the charged but useless slogan “Russia without Putin,” Saturday’s rally was centered on thanking election monitors. Tens of thousands of previously politically inactive people, riding the wave of the winter’s giddiness, had signed up to monitor elections. More than 80,000 people in Moscow, and more than 130,000 nationwide volunteered for the tedious work of breathing down the necks of members of local election committees — the cogs in the great machine that would keep falsifying the vote, even when Putin’s press secretary declared that it was Putin, first and foremost, who was interested in a clean election. (When I traveled to Irkutsk in the weeks before the election, local party leaders told me the puzzling command from Moscow was victory for Putin in the first round — that is, over 51 percent — but no violations.)

Tens of thousands of these people, young and old, and, as one observer pointed out, used to comfort, stayed up till dawn on a Sunday night to make sure the votes were counted properly. Most of my Russian friends had signed up to be observers, many of them later bragged how many votes they had “saved” for one candidate or another. This winter, in other words, tedious but necessary political work has become not only a trend, but a necessity for a lot of these people.

At Saturday’s rally, the microphone also went to the young hipster candidates who had run and won in the city’s municipal elections (concurrent with the presidential vote). Vera Kichanova, a 20-year-old journalism student who won one such race, challenged the Kremlin’s campaign to paint this movement as an Orange Revolution. “Did you see bodies in the street in Tbilisi?” she asked, referring to Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution. “I think that local citizens understand their own needs far better than some bureaucrats,” she went on, as the crowd began to chant spontaneously: “Good job! Good job!” When Parkhomenko spoke after her, he spoke not of the Duma vote or the evils of Putin’s corrupt regime, but of the elections for Moscow city parliament (it is still unclear when those will take place). Putin’s United Russia now has 32 out of 35 seats.

“We’re at the beginning of a long and arduous journey,” said Petr Shkumatov, of the Blue Buckets movement against abuse of VIP sirens, from the stage. “We have many kilometers and many years ahead of us, and we will trip a lot. But, one way or another, we have to complete this journey. We’ve already started, and no one, I don’t think, can take a step back.”

No one expected Putin to relinquish power or to lose the presidential election; no one even expected new Duma elections. From where I sit, the fact that the opposition was not handed an easy victory is a good thing: things that are easily won are easily squandered. Broadening participation in the kind of grassroots, civic, local organization that people like anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny or Blue Buckets have been doing for the last couple of years — rather than quick and sweeping political change — may be just what Russia needs.

The scary unknown, of course, is Putin’s reaction to all this. He worked to largely eliminate civil society during his first two terms as president. Will he also work to make the lives of a new generation of civic activists difficult in his third term? Or will he simply dig in his heels and ignore them? This may be just as bad: it’s hard to continue to give yourself over to tedious civic work when you’re working full time as, say, a lawyer, and your political extracurricular activities reap little to no reward.

The fact that Putin is unlikely to not sabotage this movement and the fact that his is the last rally — miting, in Russian — for a while, means the obituaries of the winter’s movement are premature. On December 5, a day after the disputed parliamentary elections, some 6,000 people had come out to protest — 20 times more than most opposition protests ever gathered in Putin’s era. That night, Navalny was arrested. By the time he came out, fifteen days later, protests were gathering ten times that. “I went to jail in one country and came out in another,” Navalny told supporters when he left prison.

On March 5, Moscow’s protesting middle class bemoaned the fact that, after all they had experienced this winter, Putin was still their president for the foreseeable future, that they didn’t, as many put it, “wake up in a different country.” Estimates of Saturday’s rally attendance put the crowd somewhere between 25,000 (the rally’s organizers) and 10,000 (the police). And yet, many bemoaned the fact that this was a small crowd, a sign in and of itself of how much times had changed.

The question now is not only whether Putin ignores them, but whether this crowd and their sympathizers in Moscow and, to a smaller extent, around the country, go back to sleep or or stay woken up in that different country.

The Last Waltz [FP]

‘This Is How You Elect a F*cking President?’

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

MOSCOW — When Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov left Pushkin Square Monday night, the crowd — estimated by the police at 14,000 — was just starting to disperse. They had stood for two hours in sub-zero temperatures, not 24 hours after Vladimir Putin wept after sweeping to victory in Sunday’s presidential race with 63.6 percent of the vote. They had listened to speeches from the whole gamut of the opposition — the leftists, the nationalists, Alexey Navalny, Mikhail Prokhorov, all had their turn at the microphone. They chanted “Putin is a thief!” and “We are the power!” They weren’t as cheerful as they’d been in past protests, but they were peaceful, despite the crowd of Putin supporters that had arrived from central casting.

Gudkov, who represents the Just Russia party and has been a central figure in this winter’s opposition protests, made sure to talk to the police officer overseeing the whole operation before he left for his appearance on opposition channel RainTV. Ilya Ponomarev, another Just Russia Duma deputy who has been a key figure in the movement, had announced from the stage that he would meet with anyone who wanted to talk to him at the fountain in the center of the square, a sort-of impromptu town hall. Navalny, the anti-corruption activist who’s become the opposition’s most natural leader, and leftist activist Sergei Udaltsov had announced that they weren’t leaving the square, period — an unlikely prospect given the temperature. “He told me, fine, let them stay and shout for a few hours,” Gudkov said, of the police supervisor.

It didn’t quite go down like that. Gudkov and his son Dmitry, also a Duma deputy from the same party, left Pushkin Square with a clear conscience. Ponomarev climbed up on the granite fountain in the center of the square, where Navalny, Udaltsov and a few others joined them. A small crowd of supporters — almost all male — stuck around, too. When the police started shouting at them to clear out, Navalny’s bodyguard commanded the crowd to form a tightly packed chain around him, and the young men at the bottom of that snow-filled empty fountain joined up. Riot police started to sweep the square and drag people into armored vans: holding pens on wheels. Then the police descended into the fountain, snatching links out of the human chain, one by one, and dragging them to the side of the fountain, and hurling them, like sacks of potatoes, over the red granite border. “Hey! Toss the next one!” one of the cops waiting up there giggled in delight.

They got Udaltsov, Navalny, opposition figure Ilya Yashin, a Western journalist, and Ponomarev, who stood shouting into a loudspeaker: “Police! Stop breaking the law! This is a peaceful meeting!” (They quickly released him.) All in all, they got 250 people, including Alena Popova, a glamorous young media consultant and e-government evangelist who has linked up to Ponomarev and the opposition movement. She wasn’t so lucky, though: the police broke her arm.

Hearing about this, the Gudkovs raced back to Pushkin Square from the television studio. By the time they arrived, the riot police and the OMON special police had formed a chain and started to push everyone out of the square. There was plenty of room and not many people, but they managed to get into such a formation — a reverse cowherd — that people, many of them journalists with press badges in full view, started falling and getting trampled underfoot.

Gudkov tried to stop them in their tracks. “I’m a deputy of the Federal Duma!” he said. “I’m a Duma deputy!”

The police kept pushing.

“What the fuck?” Gudkov exclaimed, as the police nearly bowled him over. “Do you hear me? I’m a Duma deputy!”

Dmitry wasn’t having any more luck, even when he flashed his Duma ID.

“Motherfuckers,” he grunted as the police shoved him forward. “This is how you elect a fucking president?”

“Where is Gennady Yurievich?” the elder Gudkov growled when the pushing abated for a minute, demanding to see the police supervisor who had upended the contract. “Who is the commanding officer here? Who?”

The police were mute.

When Dmitry Gudkov tried to get through the line to find this commanding officer, he was immediately detained, but released when the officers waiting for him in the police van saw who he was.

Why did the police show such disregard for a government official, ostensibly a reprentative of the people, even when he showed them proof of his identity — and stature?

“Because we haven’t abided by the law here in ages,” Dmitry Gudkov told me afterwards, angrily adjusting his shearling. “I was just in Astrakhan, monitoring the vote. They wouldn’t let me into the polling stations. I was climbing over fences to get in, even though, as a Duma deputy, I have the right to walk into any government office without impediment.”

It was all a strange echo of the night of Dec. 5, when thousands of people came out to Chistye Prudy in central Moscow to protest the fraudulent parliamentary vote the day before. That night’s protest was peaceful and the cops stood respectfully by until a small faction tried to march down to Lubyanka, the headquarters of the FSB. That’s when the batons rained down and bodies were dragged kicking to the arrest vans, and the police made the colossal mistake of arresting Navalny, instantly turning a blogger into a leader of the movement. And instead of turning people away, the violence seemed to galvanize people: Five days later, a crowd of 50,000 showed up to Bolotnaya Square to demand free elections and the respect of their government.

On the eve of the presidential election, I wrote that, when faced with two options in a tense political atmosphere, Putin tends to pick the absolute worst option. The days since — from his paranoiacally armored, tear-filled victory speech when only a third of the votes were counted, to Monday’s crackdown– seem to continue to bear that theory out. Instead of letting the stragglers shout in Pushkin Square until they could no longer stand in ankle-deep snow, to let the protest fizzle away into the very insignificance that Putin claims they represent, the command come down to arrest the sons of bitches — and mint some new martyrs. (One lesson they did seem to learn from Dec. 5, when they jailed Navalny for 15 days: This time, they released him after charging him with a petty offense — organizing a protest, maximum fine $70.)

“It’s not clear what to do with the protests,” Masha Lipman, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, told me a couple days before the election. “On one hand, they’re probably thinking, ‘enough leniency, let’s crack down.’ But if they do crack down, then the press is filled with images of contorted faces and police batons, and it’s a very unpleasant picture of Putin’s first day after the election.”

And Putin, it should be noted, cares about his image in the West. At an investor conference this fall, he courted Western capital and went on at length about what a European country Russia was. One of the last things he did before the election was to invite the editors of some of the most important European newspapers to his dacha for an interview, partly to talk to them about how Russian foreign policy would continue to be friendly — and business friendly — toward the West during a third Putin term. In May, three weeks after his inauguration, Putin will go to Chicago for the G-8 summit. How good can an alpha dog feel if his victory — which he clearly saw as an emotional, historical milestone — is marred by some roughed-up hipsters?

Already, the chidings are pouring in. Prokhorov, who had just met with a very welcoming, encouraging Putin Monday morning, issued a statement condemning the violence. “I’m outraged by the use of force against people who had gathered to express their civic position,” he said. “I am positive that the use of force and arrest of opposition politicians could have been avoided.” “Troubling to watch arrests of peaceful demonstrators at Pushkin square,” tweeted Michael McFaul, the new U.S. ambassador to Russia and close advisor to President Barack Obama, with whom Putin is to have a tête-a-tête in Chicago.

By 11 p.m., four hours after the protest on Pushkin Square had started, there were few people left. Dmitry Gudkov was trying to find out the whereabouts of Ponomarev, Navalny, and the others who had been arrested. A shocked Gennady Gudkov stood talking to a scrum of journalists — who had themselves been roughed up — when a cop with a megaphone walked by.

“Go to the metro,” the cop droned. “Stop your illegal actions.”

Gudkov did a double take.

“What illegal actions?” he said. “I’m standing in the square, talking to people. I’m not even shouting political slogans!”

I asked him how tonight’s crackdown looked for Putin, so jubilant and generous in his victory.

“Party’s over,” Gudkov sighed. “Party’s ruined.”

‘This Is How You Elect a F*cking President?’ [FP]

Cleaning Up in Moscow

Sunday, March 4th, 2012

MOSCOW – If you want to talk about trigger moments, you could do worse than the night of December 4. As the polls closed in Russia’s parliamentary elections that Sunday, the Kremlin’s polling firm FOM posted an exit poll on its website that gave United Russia, the ruling party created to support Vladimir Putin, 27.5 percent. It seemed a reasonable result: Moscow is a rich, highly educated city where United Russia, despite being backed by the full resources of the state, is virulently unpopular. By Monday morning, the exit poll had disappeared off the FOM website, replaced with an official result that bore no resemblance to the election day surveys: 46.6 percent. Moscow exploded in a rage that evening and many thousands of people came out to protest, something unheard of in the city for the dozen years of Putin’s rule.

A line had clearly been crossed. After this, tens of thousands of Muscovites — Muscovites who had up until then been indifferent to politics — started coming out into the streets in the largest political protests Russia had seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their demands — new parliamentary elections — were impossible, but the one thing you heard over and over at those first protests was a sense of offense: we are not idiots. “Politicians everywhere lie,” one young man in a beautiful shearling coat told me at the December 10 protest on Bolotnaya Square. “But in other countries, they do it with more finesse. It’s not as crass as here.”

Exactly three months and three mass opposition protests later, that lesson seems to have been utterly lost on the Kremlin — or, worse, rudely ignored. Going into the March 4 presidential election set to restore Putin to the office he temporarily swapped out of four years ago, the going theory among the Moscow political chattering classes was that Moscow itself would have a relatively clean election, that the Kremlin would decide not to pour fuel on the fire by avoiding really flagrant election fraud of the sort we saw in December — the ballot stuffing, the so-called carousels of voters herded on buses to vote again and again and again. After all, 82,000 of the 370,000 new election monitors who volunteered to make sure these elections were more honest than the last were in Moscow.

And yet, all day Sunday, Moscow was flooded with news of violations in the city. In part, they were the result of more eyes. In many cases, the violations were so blatant that no pair of eyes could miss them. Instead of limiting themselves to the quiet tricks they’ve used before — stuffing ballot boxes before the voting begins, pressuring people at work to vote for Putin, fudging the numbers on the election protocols after the election monitors have gone home — whoever was in charge of the operation almost seemed to have made a conscious decision to go flagrant. Fleets of buses — workhorses of the carousels — clogged Moscow’s center. Activists from the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi were bused in, their cities of origin plastered on the windshields, to vote. (The busing got so bad that, at mid-day, the head of the Moscow Election Committee had to issue a clarification: they were just giving people rides to the polling stations, he said.)

Elena Panfilova, the director of the Russian branch of Transparency International, reported a large mass of voters with absentee certificates — which allow you to vote outside your precinct — from faraway Tambov showing up at her precinct in suburban Moscow, where she worked as an observer. These absentee certificates were this election’s great innovation, giving the Kremlin armies of voters freed from their place of residence, and therefore making it impossible to make sure they only vote once. It seemed to be a massive plan: the Central Election Commission ran out of the certificates well before the elections started. There were 2.6 million of them.

“Everyone expected a cleaner election in Moscow,” says Alexey Navalny, who made his name as an anti-corruption fighter and is the opposition’s most natural, if reluctant, leader. We sat in the information center organized by his latest civil society project, RosVybory, one of the many new election monitoring initiatives that sprouted up in this winter’s unrest. “But these were naïve expectations, because this would have led to a second round.”

Without a strong showing for Putin in Moscow, Navalny reckoned, the math just wouldn’t have added up and Putin would not have gotten over the 50 percent threshold required to win the presidential contest outright, without a second-round runoff, despite the weakness of his would-be opponents, perennials of the stage-managed opposition like Communist Gennady Zyuganov, nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and oligarch newcomer Mikhail Prokhorov. Added Navalny, “If you want results, and they want results, you need to act firmly, without hesitation. There’s a sound file making the rounds on the Internet now of an electoral meeting with the governor of the Moscow region. He says absolutely clearly: our task is to get over 50 percent, do whatever you want. No one is going to punish the governor for falsifying the vote, but he will be punished for not delivering results.” (Indeed, several governors in whose regions United Russia did poorly in December’s elections were unceremoniously replaced by the Kremlin.)

And why did Putin not want a second round? “A second round is not cool,” Navalny argued when we talked. “If you win in the second round, then you’re just a politician who competes with Zyuganov. You’re not a cool guy…. In the political construct he’s created, you cannot show weakness. Which is why they haven’t carried out the demands of the protesters that would be easy to carry out – like firing the Central Election Commission chair, punishing even the small fry falsifiers. They clearly think that if you give the protesters a finger, they’ll take your arm. And a national leader doesn’t behave like this.”

In the meantime, Moscow filled with more special troops than I or most other people have ever seen. Special forces, interior ministry troops, military convoys at the entrances to Red Square, signal jammers, water cannons, soldiers walking around with ham radios strapped to their backs. Ostensibly, the massive presence was to secure the massive victory rally planned outside the Kremlin walls. It looked more like war, which given today’s tactics, the Kremlin is likely to see in tomorrow’s opposition protest on Pushkin Square: there’s just less and less patience for peaceful protest in an atmosphere turning increasingly toxic.

“The last time I saw water cannons in Moscow was in 1990, when there were big protests in the city,” recalls Yury Sparykin, the editor-in-chief of the media company Rambler-Afisha, and one of the organizers of the winter’s opposition protests. “That means it’s a good omen: only one year left.”

But what a year it could be.

When Putin finally took the stage at 10 p.m. he brought Dmitry Medvedev, who had served as his placeholder president for the last four years, with him. As Medvedev spoke of a clean victory, which no one could take from them, Putin stifled emotion. Only a third of the ballots had been processed, but his projected results steadily climbed past the 60 percent mark. A tear ran down his cheek. “We won in an open and honest battle,” he said, looking over a massive crowd that dwarfed any the opposition had ever summoned.

Back at the RosVybory headquarters in a bohemian café up the street from the Kremlin, Navalny mounted a small wooden stage with chessmaster-turned-opposition figure Garry Kasparov. “We have no legitimate government,” Navalny said. “We have no legitimate president. He who has declared himself president tonight is a usurper.” And then he called on the quiet, deflated crowd to continue their struggle.

Cleaning Up in Moscow [FP]

Who Will Win Russia’s One-Man Election?

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

MOSCOW – About a year ago, when I kicked off this column, nothing seemed more boring or futile than writing about the Russian presidential election. There was only one question you needed to answer to unlock the whole thing: Would Putin return from the prime minister’s office to run for a third presidential term or not? (Which is why we called the column “Kremlinology 2012.”) Once Putin decided who was running — himself or his protégé-turned-President Dmitry Medvedev — then we would know who was going to sit in the Kremlin, at least until 2018. So it all seemed to come down to Putin, who was often spoken of as the country’s only real voter.

In the year since, so much has happened — the grand swap between Putin and Medvedev announced in September, the suspect parliamentary elections in December, the mass street protests ever since — and some things have even changed. Yet, in essence, not much is really different: Going into the March 4 presidential election, everything is still up in the air and only one man — the same man — can decide how to bring it all down again. But even though we now know the answer to who is running and who will win, there are even more unknowns still to reckon with.

Yes, Putin will win, and he will win with a comfortable margin, but it is wholly unclear how accurately that will represent the popular will. In the hall of mirrors that has been the last month of opposition protests and loyalist counter-protests — not to mention car rallies and counter car rallies — it’s become hard to gauge where Russian public opinion truly lies. According the latest polling done by the independent Levada Center, 66 percent of those planning to vote say they will vote for Putin. Not bad for a leader facing a wave of street protests.

But if you look more closely at the numbers, Levada sociologist Denis Volkov says, they show something else. Over the summer, when it was unclear which of the two top leaders would actually be running, Putin had 23 percent and Medvedev had 18 percent. More than 40 percent of Russians polled said they wanted the two to run against each other. Then, when that option was taken away on Sept. 24, Putin’s number shot up. “People are rooting for the winner,” Volkov told me.

On Sunday, many people will vote for Putin not only because they think he’s the predestined winner but also because there is no one else to vote for. The Kremlin’s two-pronged strategy of first slashing and burning the political playing field and then bemoaning the lack of real competitors — it’s a shame, Putin once said, that his fellow democratic leader Gandhi is dead — has worked quite well. As it stands now, Putin faces Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the nationalist clown who has been the Kremlin-sponsored spoiler for over two decades; old Putin friend and Just Russia leader Sergey Mironov (you can see just how bad a candidate he is from this campaign ad); and oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, about whose independence there are serious doubts. Putin’s most serious rival, the Communist Gennady Zyuganov, resembles nothing so much as a smooth woodcarving. In my utterly unscientific surveys of people at Putin rallies in Moscow and traveling around Siberia last week, support for Putin split roughly in half between the “we-love-Putin” camp and the “got-any-better-ideas?” camp. The liberal-leaning opposition, loud and present and plentiful in the capital, is simply far less energized out there in the great Russian hinterland, where just over half the votes are.

Regardless, on Monday morning, Russia will wake up to its old-new president Putin, and that evening Muscovites will take to the streets in protests, both for and against. The Moscow mayor’s office has made a serious concession and allowed the opposition to gather at Pushkinskaya Square, in the heart of Moscow. But some in the opposition are talking of marching downhill to the Kremlin and forming a white circle around the old red walls. Will the authorities crack down? How many more times will city leaders grant permits to the organizers after March 5? How much stomach will Putin have for more protests once the campaign is over and won and he has to go back to running the country?

Speaking of which, how will Putin interpret the mandate he receives this weekend? Will we see a shift toward a more pluralistic Putin, a Putin capable of coalitions and concessions, or will we see a retrenchment, a caricature of the old Putin, a blustery, salty KGB-type who rules by fell swoops and diktats, a ruler to whom the people must bow? Will Medvedev, promised the post of prime minister, be allowed to continue to play the (sort of) liberal good cop? Will the Kremlin’s political concessions in the face of these protests — the return of gubernatorial elections and easier party registration procedures — have legs, or even teeth? Or will Putin continue tightening the screws by cracking down on independent media and opposition activists?

And what of those long overdue economic reforms? Putin’s campaign promises to raise pensions and fly Russian soccer fans to the European Championships for free could cost something like $161 billion. It’s a price tag that pretty much requires oil in the $150 a barrel range in order for the Kremlin to keep its word. That or Putin would have to raise taxes, or the retirement age — anathema to his populist policies and to his core electorate, which depends on such fiscally contradictory largesse.

What Putin decides to do come March 5 is “the central question, not because Putin decides everything in politics on March 5 but precisely because he can no longer decide everything himself,” says political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, who worked on Putin’s 2000 presidential campaign but was fired by the Kremlin in the last year. “It’s become a very complicated scene.” The way Pavlovsky sees it, there are two possible paths: modernize and reform the political system or “play the tsar.” The first option is the more difficult one, but should Putin choose the second door, Pavlovsky predicts, “He’ll become a prisoner of his own system, completely out of touch with reality, locked in the Kremlin and with his minions ruling in his name. And this is the worst possible outcome.”

For now, it seems Putin can’t quite make up his mind. On Thursday night, he met with the editors in chief of major European newspapers. He was calm and confident while monosyllabically turning down the opposition’s demands of new parliamentary elections. But just days before that, at a rally of supporters at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, he screamed into the microphone of blood and sweat and meddling foreigners. It was a strange and angry speech, bizarrely out of sync with the wearily festive mood of the people who had come out to hear him (some willingly, some not). Moreover, those who had come had come in peace. Everyone I asked at the pro-Putin rally — without exception — said they didn’t mind the opposition protests. “Everyone has the right to their own opinion,” the refrain went. And then Putin talked to them of blood and dying to save the Motherland. From whom? “It’s a strange, sudden turn, not really motivated by anything,” argues Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. “It’s not his usual tone. His personal campaign is a lot more subtle. It’s a little savage, and I think it speaks to a certain unevenness, a nervousness.”

Increasingly, however, Putin’s rhetoric seems to point to something a little worse than a case of nerves. On Tuesday, at a meeting of his National People’s Front, Putin spoke of the opposition, saying bluntly that they would have to “submit” to the choice of the majority and avoid “imposing” their views on the majority. This kind of zero-sum language would seem to preclude dialogue. Putin followed by bizarrely speculating that his increasingly desperate opposition will end up searching for a “sacrificial offering” from its own ranks. “They’ll whack [him] themselves, excuse me, and then blame the government,” he said. This kind of talk doesn’t leave much room for hope; if anything, Putin seems to be encouraging the radicalization of the still amorphous opposition against him. Already, anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny, who helped launch the protests, has been calling for an “escalation,” and some of his activists were arrested on Wednesday for trying to hand out tents: Navalny wants to see a repeat of the great campout in Kiev after Ukraine’s rigged 2004 presidential election — the one that led to the Orange Revolution, as well as to Putin’s obsession with “color revolutions” being plotted all around him.

The Putin I’ve come to know in writing this column for the past year is a leader who, when presented with two options, tends to pick the easier, if often far stupider, of the two, especially in a tense political atmosphere. All spring and summer, the political scene in Moscow stagnated and soured as the city waited for Putin to make up his mind: Would he stay or go? When he finally revealed his decision in September, it was a stunning one, simply because it came out seeming so shortsighted and reckless and blunt.

“It was the most obvious and therefore the least probable move of the ones I could have predicted,” Putin’s chronicler, the journalist Andrei Kolesnikov told me that day as we both stood slack-jawed in the stands following Putin’s announcement. “We all waited for this moment for a long time, and still this is a surprise precisely because it’s so obvious.” He was in disbelief, despite the obviousness, because he, like many others, had hoped that Putin was capable of a better, wiser decision. When the protests exploded in December, Sasha, half of the duo behind KermlinRussia, a popular Twitter political satire, ruefully pointed out to me that if Putin had let Medvedev stay another term, “none of this would have happened.” And I think he’s absolutely right.

Would it be foolish to hope that, come March 5, Putin will see his mandate with the nuance the situation requires? To hope Putin has learned that political compromise and political strength can coexist? To hope that, for once, Putin takes the more difficult but ultimately more productive route of reform? Or would it be more prudent to see what’s hiding in plain sight? Again. Says Pavlovsky: “I just hope he doesn’t send us to war with Tajikistan.”

Who Will Win Russia’s One-Man Election? [FP]

Tightening the Screws

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

MOSCOW – About a month ago, after the marred parliamentary elections and the December protests shook Moscow, after everyone went away for the New Year’s holiday, and after everyone came back, 27-year-old Duma deputy Robert Shlegel decided to do some digging. This enterprising young man, a star of the pro-Kremlin youth Nashi movement, was curious: Who, exactly was financing these opposition protests?

“There was lots of information floating around; were these protests financed from abroad? Were they not financed from abroad?” Shlegel explained the other day, referring to the claims put forward by prime minister and presidential frontrunner Vladimir Putin — and then picked up by the loyalist information network — that the protests were provoked and financed by the U.S. State Department. Shlegel found an interesting, if not totally bizarre, way to investigate. He decided to look into the financing of Dozhd, or Rain TV. This independent, internet-and-cable network, staffed and watched mostly by urban hipsters — though nobody really knows how many of them ever actually tune in — has provided unalloyed and often openly sympathetic coverage of December’s events. When the protests first broke on Dec. 5, and no one knew what to make of them, Dozhd simply aired a live stream, first of the rally, then of the violent arrests. Compared to the intensely filtered, hard-spun statist agitprop — if not utter silence — on state television, Dozhd naturally came to be seen not as the “optimistic channel,” as per its logo, but as the opposition channel. Obviously, the views of its staff, many of whom showed up at the protests decked out in white ribbons (the symbol of the protests), play a part.

But that’s not what Shlegel was after. “When I looked into how the technical side of the protests was financed, I thought: either Dozhd financed the protest organizers, or the organizers could’ve helped Dozhd cover the protests,” Shlegel explained. I couldn’t quite follow his logic, but he went on. “Are these things financed from abroad, or not? This is a politically sensitive issue.” It was, he decided, a question for the prosecutor’s office. “If you’re going to be the conscience of the nation,” he said, “why are they hiding where they get their funding?”

So a month after the protests temporarily died down, Shlegel filed a request with the federal prosecutor’s office, which, in turn, asked Dozhd for its editorial charter and tax documents, among other things. But Shlegel was looking for more — and late last week, Natalia Sindeeva, Dozhd’s owner, tweeted that she had received an urgent and detailed official request for all kinds of financial documentation. Because Dozhd had been the subject of official pressure back in December — the government agency overseeing the legal compliance of the media demanded to see all that live footage from those two violent days, Dec. 5 and 6 — this latest request naturally caused a stir.

But Dozhd isn’t alone in being the recipient of unwanted attention. Two days prior, Ekho Moskvy, the opposition radio station, came under attack by its state-affiliated owner, Gazprom Media, which owns two thirds of Ekho Moskvy’s shares. Gazprom forced a shake-up of the station’s board, ousting founder and editor-in-chief Aleksei Venediktov along with four other board members, including two affiliated neither with Gazprom Media, nor Ekho. “This is a signal, certainly,” Venediktov said in special broadcast after the news broke. “I don’t see anything catastrophic in this, but it is unpleasant and I certainly see this as an attempt to adjust editorial policy.” And while Venediktov tried to downplay any sense of looming catastrophe, and Gazprom Media denied any whiff of carrying out Kremlin orders, it was hard not to recall what had preceded this event: About a month ago, Putin, at a meeting with prominent editors, lay into Venediktov, accusing his station of “covering me in diarrhea, from morning ’till night.”

Now, Putin is certainly a man who backs up scatological rhetoric with action, but there is something else at play here. Ekho Moskvy did not start dumping liquid feces on the premier just recently; it has been doing so for a decade. It was known as the Kremlin’s window dressing, the thing it could point to and say: “See? Freedom of the press! And on our dime, too!” Neither Ekho nor Dozhd are marginal outlets: High-ranking officials regularly grace both studios. Their chiefs — Venediktov and Sindeeva — are consummate players of Russia’s political game and have intimate knowledge of the couloirs of power. Sindeeva is friends with the oligarchs; Venediktov gets birthday greetings from Putin.

Indeed, for a time, Dozhd was President Dmitry Medvedev’s new media darling. He once visited the studio and even Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, used Dozhd as a way to wink-wink with the liberal opposition, admitting to them that Putin may not have actually discovered those ancient amphorae while he was scuba diving in the Black Sea.

But an increasingly shaky Putin is just weeks from a presidential election. Window dressing for the West is the last thing he needs right now, and he certainly doesn’t need Ekho using his government money to become a revolutionary hub — which, as Michael Schwirtz noted in the New York Times, is increasingly the case. The same can be said of Dozhd, and the other two publications that have come under state attack during this turbulent winter: Kommersant Vlast, and Bolshoi Gorod (the latter also owned by Sindeeva).

And so the screws are being tightened. The tightly monitored federal channels, which in December dared to push the envelope, have come under the gun. As I reported in my last column, NTV was swept clean of an upstart editorial team and Channel 1 has decided to freeze all shows with the merest hint of socio-political themes. Last week, Anne Nivat, a well-known French writer, was kicked out of Russia for meeting with opposition figures for her upcoming book. A bank where anti-corruption activist and protest politician Alexey Navalny has an account, received an official visit from the Bank of Russia and Navalny’s account was “checked.” And, earlier this week, Ksenia Sobchak — the daughter of Putin’s late political mentor, glamorous it-girl turned opposition journalist — finally felt the pinch, too. Her new show on MTV Russia, “State Department with Ksenia Sobchak,” was canceled after one episode. “I don’t know what happened,” she told me. “They paid for four shows — they paid the production company, they paid me. But I invited on Navalny. I think it was a political decision.”

Maybe it’s just coincidence? Maybe MTV executives decided that a music video network wasn’t the best place for a political talk show. Maybe, when a day after the Ekho Moskvy board shake up, a summons from the prosecutor’s office landed on Venediktov’s desk, it really was, as it was claimed, spurred by complaint from a strange man in far-away Tambov who took issue with a radio station’s editorial charter. Maybe it was simply the ranting of a man with too much time and too few marbles. Maybe the police and immigration officials trailing Nivat were simply over-enthusiastic cogs showing initiative. The fact that she was allowed to return over the weekend, after an override from higher-ups in the Federal Migration Service, indicates that this is probably the case. And it is probably the case with Shlegel’s inquiry, too.

Sobchak, however, is not buying it. “I hope it’s connected just to the election campaign, and that after the election they’ll relax a bit,” she said. “Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case. I think the government has decided on a course of clamping down.”

Either way, at a certain point coincidences stop being coincidences. And overzealous minions are suddenly hyperactive because they can clearly read the writing emblazoned on the wall: We are tightening the screws. “I don’t think it’s over. On the contrary, we’re seeing a well-defined trend,” says political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky. “I think it will get stronger and I think it is intended to put the media in a stricter framework after the election.” It is one, he posits, that will rely increasingly on legalisms and technicalities — as well as American-style claims of “immoral” programming — to keep the media in line. “I don’t the system will be as personalized. It doesn’t need a single conductor. The conception will be a loose, sticky legal framework where they can contest you on an increasing number of judicial points.” This means it won’t matter if you’re state-owned or, like, Dozhd, indpendent, especially if we see more of the kinds of things we’ve seen of late: pressure on Internet providers, on boards of directors, on owners. And the brilliant thing about it? “None of these are censorship.”

As for Shlegel, he insists that his initiative was not intended to be a PR stunt or to coincide with the Ekho Moskvy mini-scandal. “I just wanted information,” he said, flustered. He noted that 800 people had already called him that day to harangue him about his perceived attack on Dozhd. “I’m always really lucky when it comes to such things. I couldn’t have found a better moment,” he said. “Of course, I’m being sarcastic.”

Tightening the Screws [FP]

Upping the Ante

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

MOSCOW – There were a few surprising things about Saturday’s opposition protest in Moscow. For one thing, the cold — a bitter -10 degrees Fahrenheit — didn’t seem to keep anyone at home. Nor did the fact that it had been more than a month since the last demonstration, leading commentators to worry that the protest movement against Vladimir Putin’s rule would lose momentum. If anything, more people came out than last time, some 100,000 in all.

Which makes the second thing a little less surprising. If the first big protest, on Bolotnaya Square, on December 10, was a mix of the politically active and the young and white-collared, the crowd that reconvened there on Saturday was extremely diverse. There were pensioners and office workers and a group of military history hobbyists wearing fatigues. (“We’re freaks,” one of them explained.) There were even veteran paratroopers, the saltiest of the salty earth and famous for their August holiday when they strip to their skivvies and frolic in city fountains. One does not expect to see them marching alongside iPhone-toting urbanites and democracy activists. And yet, there were paratrooper flags everywhere. “They think that our people don’t think, don’t see anything, and don’t understand anything,” one of the veterans, a 50-year-old named Sergei, told me. “It’s time for the country to be ruled by honest people.”

Beyond the sloganeering, there were signs this time of genuine political organizing in advance of the national elections on March 4 when Putin will run to resume the presidency he temporarily handed over to Dmitry Medvedev four years ago. Several booths had been set up to gather signatures for petitions to contest election violations in court. People recruited election monitors, part of a drive over the last few weeks that’s culminated in two projects to train over 20,000 volunteer election monitors: one by the blogger and opposition Alexey Navalny and another, called Voters’ League, formed by the creative types among the protest organizers.

I also met two men who had decided to run for office in the Moscow municipal elections in March. “We need normal people to get into government, so that the organs of the state work not for themselves but for the citizens of the district,” said one of the candidates, Konstantin Kolisnichenko, 36, who, surprisingly, works for a government bank. (Unsurprisingly, he’s had a near impossible time getting on the ballot.) It was a statement that sounded a lot different from the chants of “Putin is a thief” around us. It sounded suspiciously like normal political discourse.

Meanwhile, the pro-Putin forces gathered across town. More accurately, they were bused in, and many were paid for. There were a lot of them, though not nearly as many as the 138,000-person Internal Ministry estimate. And if the tens of thousands at Bolotnaya laughed and smiled, the people at the pro-Putin rally had little to be cheerful about. The message delivered to them as they stood in the frost was one of brimstone and fire: the country was on the verge of collapsing, revolution was around the corner. “They want to drown the country in blood,” television star Maxim Shevchenko shouted from the stage about the protesters gathered on the other side of Moscow.

This apocalyptic imagery is strange, given the peaceful nature of the opposition protests. It does, however, reflect the fear and incomprehension about the protests inside the halls of power. “Julia, do you have a pet?” Yuri Kotler asked me the other day. Kotler is a young member of the ruling United Russia party and was once an advisor to Boris Gryzlov, former speaker of the Duma. I had asked him how the slowly mounting protests were perceived in the Kremlin. Yes, I said, I do have a pet. A cat. “Well, imagine if your cat came to you and started talking,” Kotler explained. “First of all, it’s a cat, and it’s talking. Are you sure it’s talking? You have to make sure. Second, all these years, the government fed it, gave it water, petted it, and now it’s talking and asking for something. It’s a shock. We have to get used to it.”

Leaving aside the telling analogy of citizens as mute-animal property, the comment is important for another reason: 100,000 people come out to protest in severe cold, the third such mass protest in the heart of the capital in two months, and the Kremlin is clearly still trying to get used to it — or hoping it will all go away. “It’s a bureaucracy, and it works for itself,” Kotler told me. “It’ll take a long time for them to understand that they’re hired.”

But there is evidence that the initial shock is wearing off and the Kremlin — that is, Putin — is slowly hardening its stance. First, it offered some carrots, in the form of legislation to make party registration easier and to bring back popular election of governors. It stopped cracking down on protests, as it had done in early December. And last week, Putin said his campaign would think about working with the Voters’ League monitors. Russian television viewers even got to see Boris Nemtsov, a veteran of the democratic opposition — and the federal television blacklists — on national television, as well as some criticism of Putin’s performance during his annual Q&A with the public.

Now, there is talk in the capital of “tightening the screws,” one of those still-resonant phrases from the Soviet era, when screw-tightening meant something far harsher than what is available to the Kremlin today. “They’re waiting for the opposition to make a mistake,” says one Moscow source with close knowledge of the Kremlin. “Once they do, it will be a welcome opportunity to crack down.” In fact, the stick has already been used along with the carrots. Opposition figures and those involved in organizing the protests have been harassed in the last months. Nemtsov’s phone was hacked and recordings of his salty discussions with his press secretary were made public. Details of the Christmas holidays of various figures also leaked to the press. The parents of one of the organizers, journalist Ilya Klishin, were summoned to their local branch of the KGB’s successor agency, the FSB, which the security organization later denied.

And the journalist responsible for that rare on-air critique of Putin has since been fired from his station, the Gazprom-owned NTV, where there has been a purge of editorial staff in recent weeks amid rumors that a Kremlin loyalist, Margarita Simonyan, might replace the current head of NTV. Whether or not she does, the point has been clearly made: to bring order to an upstart channel, to remind staff about their ultimate loyalty. It was made even clearer in the decision of Channel 1, the main state-owned channel, not to air potentially sharp programming in the month before the presidential election.

Saturday’s pro-Putin rally in Moscow — and smaller ones across the country — have to be seen in this context. If the opposition’s strategy is to show the Kremlin that its sheer numbers demand more inclusion in the political process, Putin is answering in kind: there are even more of us. Which is why the official tallies of yesterday’s protests in Moscow — 138,000 for Putin, 35,000 against him — were so bizarrely off. (Most observers, including police I spoke to on the scene, put the figures roughly in reverse: 30,000 for Putin, 100,000 against him in Moscow.) And why it was so important that, in every city where there was an opposition protest this weekend, there was a larger, mirror one in support of Putin, with titles like “Strong leader, strong nation.”

Nor is it a coincidence that, just as people streamed home from the protests, Russia vetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad has turned his guns on his own citizens. Russia is not Syria, and it is unlikely that Putin, with his European pretensions, would crack down that hard. But his people do warn of blood flowing and, at the last meeting of the Valdai discussion club, in November, Putin spoke of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s “gruesome” end. It has been rumored to be something of an obsession for him.

Thus the stonewalling, and what we’re about to see: a real escalation by the opposition. If the protests in December were about new, fair parliamentary elections, the focus now is becoming Putin, and there will soon be only one demand: Putin has to go. This is, of course, the logical outcome for a leader who has so personalized Russia’s entire dysfunctional political system, and who continues to preclude conceding more than an inch. But upping the ante is a risky game, especially if you lose it.

When Russians — and those thousands of new election monitors — go to the polls to vote for Russia’s president for the next six years, it’s by no means clear what will happen. Putin will likely win, but how? The possible scenarios do not promise a calm Russian spring. If Putin wins in the first round, but with just over the required 50 percent of the vote, few will see it as a legitimate victory, most likely because it won’t be. “They’ve spent a decade building a system that, on every level — teachers, local elites — are incentivized to falsify the vote to deliver the right percentages,” political consultant and former Kremlin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky told me in January. “You can’t just flip a switch, and expect the system to stop on a dime.” If Putin forces a win in the first round, Pavlovsky added, “he’ll assume the presidency for the first time in an atmosphere of mistrust, skepticism, and depression.”

The problem is, by March, it will no longer be -10 degrees outside. If half a million, or even a million people come out — and chances are, many will — how will the security forces respond? Will they leave them to protest in peace, as they have in the last two months, or will they crack down, as they did on December 5? If Putin is forced into a second round of the presidential vote and then wins, he will still have less legitimacy than before, especially in his own eyes. “For him, it will be a psychological catastrophe,” one government official explained to me. “We’re screwed,” the official said when I asked him for his assessment. He gave the current incarnation of the system two more years, tops.

But some in the opposition are not too optimistic for their own prospects either. “Everyone was so euphoric yesterday,” says opposition leader and former Duma speaker Vladimir Ryzhkov. “But I went home last night and thought about it, and, oh boy. We’re stuck. We’re at a dead end.” Dead ends rarely end well in a country where dialogue with the other side is stigmatized, especially when the side with the power — and the guns — keeps warning of blood and chaos.

So far, however, those thoughts seem to be far from the minds of the tens of thousands who braved the bitterest cold for a purely political cause. “I had the choice to stay in my warm bed today,” said one middle-aged woman in a floor-length mink coat. The strap of an expensive purse crossed her torso, there were Armani aviators perched on her nose. Her skin was clearly familiar with the salons of the city. A former businesswoman, she said she had missed the December protests. “I know I picked a crazy day to come out,” she said about the cold. “But I just couldn’t sit at home anymore.”

Clearly, the times are changing. In the last two months, a surprising addition to the protesting crowds has been Ksenia Sobchak, the popsy, fashionable daughter of the late Anatoly Sobchak, former mayor of St. Petersburg and Putin’s political mentor. She has long been part of the gilded, Kremlin-friendly elite, a sort of Russian Paris Hilton, and her joining the protests has been viewed with some suspicion. On Saturday, she weighed in on her Twitter account. “If the government doesn’t see now that people are willing to stand out in the frost and defend their rights, that government will be overthrown.”

Upping the Ante [FP]

The End of Putin

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

MOSCOW – On the night of Monday, Dec. 5, blogger, anti-corruption activist, and budding politician Alexey Navalny was one of 500 people arrested at a protest denouncing fraud in the previous day’s parliamentary elections. Surrounded by some 6,000 people — an unheard-of number for a protest in the center of Moscow, a dozen years into the apathetic Putin era — Navalny had delivered an angry, guttural, less-than-diplomatic speech. “We will cut their throats!” he proclaimed, then tried to lead a march down the street to the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, the powerful successor to the KGB known by its Russian initials FSB. This had not been permitted in advance, so he was bundled up, stuffed into a police van, and shuttled around nighttime Moscow to keep his supporters from picketing his detention. The next day, he was given a 15-day sentence for disobeying police orders.

By the time Navalny came out in the early morning hours of December 21, he was received with a hero’s welcome. “I went to jail in one country and came out in another,” he told the cheering journalists and supporters who had braved a blizzard to catch a glimpse of him.

It was true: Russia had changed while Navalny was in jail. He had missed the huge rally on December 10 on Bolotnaya Square, when the numbers who came out in peaceful, euphoric protest — an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 — made the original demonstration at Chystie Prudy look like a civic sneeze. Navalny had missed Vladimir Putin’s stuttering, insulting response, and the energetic, often fractious and messy planning for the next protest, which took place — with Navalny front and center among the 100,000-plus who turned out — on Dec. 24.

It was particularly ironic that Navalny had missed the first mass demonstration in recent Russian political history.

Navalny has been in opposition politics for nearly a decade, but in the last two years, he has become the man to watch, becoming the first of his opposition colleagues to turn rhetoric and abstract principles into concrete action. First, Navalny (trained as a lawyer) started taking corrupt state corporations to court and blogging about it. Then he created a site called RosPil that crowdsourced the work of exposing questionable government deals. When he asked his supporters to donate money for the cause — and for hiring lawyers to work on the project — the Russian web responded, delivering double the amount he asked for. “People donating money is extremely significant, given Russians’ cynicism,” Aleh Tsyvinski, a Yale economist who has become a sort of mentor to Navalny, told me when I profiled Navalny for The New Yorker in the spring. “Writing to Navalny is, in some ways, a way of exercising power. He is tapping into a huge demand for a grassroots movement.”

In effect, Navalny trained a set of thousands of Russian Internet dwellers to do something concrete with their disaffection. And by the time the election season kicked off, in March, Navalny’s mantra of “vote, and vote for anyone but United Russia” found a deep resonance among his following, and quickly spread. His alternative title for Putin’s ruling United Russia party — the Party of Crooks and Thieves — became a sticky meme, with one-third of Russians now identifying the party in this way, just three months after the phrase flew out of Navalny’s mouth on a radio show.

So when the huge crowd gathered in Bolotnaya on Dec. 10, it was his crowd — a largely white-collar crowd, and the crowd that his campaign had driven first to vote (an unusual activity for this set), then to come out and protest. (When I asked him, a year ago, if he was scared, given the fates of previous dissidents like jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and dead lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, in taking on the regime, Navalny trotted out his trademark pluck. “If tomorrow ten businessmen spoke up directly and openly, we’d live in a different country,” he said. “Starting tomorrow.”) The protest was a game-changer, and it was, to a large extent, the fruit of his political labors.

And yet, it was a crowd whose size and support he — and everyone else — had underestimated. Most of the people I spoke to at the protests have come to see Navalny as not only the most viable opposition politician, as well as the one most representative of their views. But there’s one big caveat: his nationalistic views. Navalny had joined the scarily nationalistic “Russian March” in November, alienating many in his core constituency of the urban bourgeois, who fear Russian skinheads — the most violent in Europe — almost as much as they worry about Putin’s plans to return to the presidency for another 12 years.

Now that he is out of prison and back in the game, what is his plan? How does he view the most recent Kremlin attempts at placating the street? How does he visualize his own political future? We spoke as the euphoria of December’s protests fades into exhaustion. “I hope to go somewhere for a week in January, and not have to answer emails,” he said. He paused and added, “Not that I’ve been answering them for the last three weeks anyway.”

What follows is a transcript of our conversation:

FP: What did you make of last Saturday’s record-breaking protest?

We were all worried because the 10th was an unprecedented event. It was an unprecedented, new reality so what we were all worried that it was just a one-off. In the last two days before the protest, though, everyone infected me with their optimism and confidence, and on Saturday it became clear that it’s not an accidental protest, that these people are upset and that they will continue to protest and demand what they want, and will get what they want. It became clear that they would come out a second time, a third time, and a fourth time.

You missed the last protest, on the 10th, because you were in jail. What did you hear about it?

They brought us a radio to our cell, and we heard that there was a group on Facebook [for this protest] and that 20,000 or 30,000 indicated they were coming. I have a popular blog and I know that you can get a ton of “likes,” but are they convertible into real attendance? That is the big question. So we were discussing whether there will be more people than at the rally on Dec. 5 when there were 6,000 people. But, honestly, I was very skeptical about the idea of 50,000. I guess I just underestimated it.

When you heard that 50,000 to 60,000 people came out, what was your reaction?

There were 18 of us in the jail cell, and out of those 18, 16 were political prisoners. And we were of course really happy to hear this. We felt our own involvement in this, and we knew that, to some extent, we were one of the reasons that people had come out. It was really cool. One guy in our cell, a soccer fan who had also been arrested, he said something I really liked: “It’s like a really great birthday party. You weren’t invited to it, but it’s still really nice to see.” That’s how we felt.

No one expected these numbers, but, in a way, you seem to have underestimated the size of your electorate.

What is my electorate? People who don’t like corruption? Everyone is my electorate because 95 percent of people strongly dislike corruption. But the question was, do they dislike it enough to come out with me and protest? These people aren’t serfs. I can’t take bring them out onto the square, or not bring them out. I can’t say, “Go here, do that.” I wasn’t the one who brought these people out to protest. The events of the last month are what brought them out. They are the crest of the wave, but the wave didn’t rise up because of them.

Why then?

Putin created the wave. Injustice, deceit, fraud, falsification created the wave. Of the approximately 75 people who got jail terms after being arrested on the 5th, almost all of them were volunteer election monitors. There were not very many political activists like me. Most of them were there completely by chance. One guy was a programmer, one was a film director, a soccer fan, a random teenager — people who had never in any way participated in politics or activism. But they come out on the 5th and marched because they were furious, because they had been kicked out of polling stations, because they saw the election protocols that gave United Russia 100 votes, but then saw that the official results were 500.

Putin’s main mistake was to pull this nonsense in Moscow. United Russia got 46 percent here, even though it got 32 percent in the Moscow region [which is rural and votes more readily for the ruling party]. In Yekaterinburg, United Russia got 25 percent. Of course, everyone expected that, in Moscow, they wouldn’t get more than 28 percent and then — bam! — 46 percent, and areas in the center populated by the intelligentsia were delivering 90 percent for United Russia.

When I asked people at the protests on the 10th and the 24th if there was a politician who reflected their views, most said “Navalny, but … ” because they were disturbed by your participation in this year’s nationalist Russian March, in November. Some saw this as a cynical attempt to widen your base. Have the December protests convinced you that your natural, white-collar base is big enough?

I didn’t go to the Russian March to find another base. I do what I do because I think it’s right. I am very grateful to the people who support me, but I’m not going to rule by poll results or focus groups. I have a set of views on what I need to say and do, and I will continue to say and do them regardless of whether my support is rising or falling. I’m not flirting with anyone, not liberals, not nationalists. I think my line on most things is sufficiently clear.

If you go into “big politics,” though, won’t you have to pay attention to polls and take your citizens’ views into account?

It’s one thing to listen to people’s opinions, and another to let your supporters manipulate you. I formulate my political positions by looking at polls, by taking into account the views and opinions of those who surround me every day. At the same time, I am a person just like these people and I want exactly the same things that they do. Mostly, though, you’re talking about political activists who are saying, Navalny should do this or that.

No, the people I spoke to were a random average, and they said, “I like Navalny, but his nationalism scares me.” How do you respond to them?

If there are still people who are made uncomfortable by my participation in the Russian March, or are scared of “Navalny with his nationalistic views,” that points only to a problem of clarity. That means I wasn’t able to clearly and correctly explain my views. Because every person with whom I am able to discuss this subject in depth, they agree that my views on this are correct, reasonable, and appropriate. So I guess I’ll just have to keep explaining.

Many thought your speech at the protest on Dec. 5 was very aggressive — “we will cut their throats” and so on — and it was very different from your speech on Dec. 24, which was much calmer. What changed?

Dec.5 was an angry, aggressive protest of a minority. Election observers were the core of this protest, which was and wasn’t officially permitted; they were completely surrounded by the police. They were in the minority, and they understood that they had lost. It was a lot of people, but it was still the protest of a minority, of the persecuted, the angry, of those who hate this regime. I was speaking to them. But when, on Dec. 10 and the 24, it became clear that “we” is actually everyone, then the rhetoric changed.

The questions people seem to come back to over and over again is: to what extent can one change the current system from within, and can one compromise with it? How do you answer these questions?

You can’t change this system from within. Its founding principles are corruption, hypocrisy, and cynicism. If you join this system, your main instruments become corruption, hypocrisy, and cynicism, and it’s impossible to build anything with such instruments. I have my own experience with trying to reform the system from within — I spent a year in Kirov [as an advisor to the Kirov governor] — and I’ve also seen the experience of other wonderful people, like [former finance minister] Aleksei Kudrin, who became part of the system instead of changing it.

People who talk about changing the system from within are lying. They’re trying to justify their own hypocritical position, to defend the fact that, as part of the system, they’re deriving material or political benefits from it.

So then what’s the plan? How do you change the system?

You can change the system using a tool invented by human civilization. This tool is called “democracy” and “free elections.” We need to have free elections. Then we need to participate in these elections and win, to show that our principles for building a government, unlike those of corruption and cynicism, are better.

The people who came out to protest in December, whom should they vote for in the presidential election on March 4?

I don’t know who they’ll vote for on March 4, and I don’t think it’s important. First of all, they need to vote against Putin. Second of all, there won’t be an election on March 4. It will be a throne inheritance procedure. Who people vote for is not important. We need to use this procedure to get another strike against the regime.

What results do you think we’ll see on March 5? Because Putin will probably win, and can win even without falsifying the vote. But then what?

We have to do what we did before: demand free elections, continue to develop protest activism, to press on the state until we get parliamentary elections in which anyone who wants to can participate, and to demand new presidential elections.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, but Putin’s power is not based on elections but on his very real popularity. His popularity is based on the good deeds he did a long time ago, and on television. But he hasn’t done anything good in a long time. In fact, he’s done a lot of very bad things. We can use the television to tell everyone what we know on the Internet, to tell people about his horrible, disgusting, corrupt dealings. And that will be the end of him.

What do you think about the Kremlin’s proposal to reinstate gubernatorial elections?

They’ve obviously realized that they’ve reached a certain limit, and that there’s a very real danger that they will be booted from the Kremlin, so they’re trying to lower the pressure inside the political system by breaking down everything they’ve done in the last ten years. Right now, though, it smacks of deceit because there will still be ways to block candidates and parties from registering, to remove them from the ballot on technicalities. It’s a starting bargaining position.

What do you make of Putin’s reaction to the growing protests of the last month?

He’s trying to save face. If he betrays any confusion, his support will drop further. He’s in a situation where he can’t do anything to make his support grow. It will continue to decline; the only question is the pace of that drop. If they showed him on television holding his head and crying over the protests, his support would be evaporate overnight. But he’s not an idiot. His image is that of a tough guy, and he’s playing the tough guy to the last.

What do you make of [businessman Mikhail] Prokhorov’s candidacy for president?

It’s the Kremlin’s Trojan project. He’s absolutely not independent. He will not win the presidential elections. Nevertheless, his entry into politics is a good thing because any new people, any new political entities make the political system better by offering more choice, more competition. He’s fine. I have nothing against him.

You missed registering to participate in the 2012 presidential election because you were in jail. Did you want to participate?

Our goal is to have free elections. If we achieve this, if the 2012 presidential election is open to all those who want to participate, not just those who were invited and who negotiated the terms of their participation, if at this point, I have a level of support that gives me grounds to participate, I will, of course, participate.

And you want this?

Like any politician who is fighting for power, I want to fight for power in a real way and to get the kind of post that would allow me to change something.

The End of Putin [FP]

Won’t Get Fooled Again

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

MOSCOW – Going into today’s protest against the fraud in the Dec. 4 parliamentary election, it was unclear how many people would come. Would there be more people than the some 50,000 that gathered on Bolotnaya Square on Dec. 10, in the election’s heady aftermath? Would there be less, given the holiday season, the dropping temperatures, and the distance — three weeks — from the insult of the election fraud that cemented the ruling United Russia party, however weakly, back into power? Would there be more, given the lack of a crackdown last time, when, it should be noted, no one knew how many would show up either? And even if there were more, what would it mean?

Crowd counting, especially from the ground level, is an inexact science at best, but it was clear to everyone — from police to journalists to the event organizers — that thousands more people came out today to Sakharov Avenue than did two weeks ago to Bolotnaya Square, which has become the new by-word for the still hard-to-pin spirit of change creeping through the Russian political system. The crowd — its estimates ranging from 30,000 to 120,000 — was also different from the protest of Dec. 10. If Bolotnaya was packed with the young and the white-collared (“office plankton,” as they’re known in Russia) today’s demonstrations brought out a more motley assembly.

Anarchists clustered by the gay activists, themselves within spitting distance from the radical young communists. Their elderly counterparts, with fur hats and voluminous, unkempt eyebrows (“You tell America,” one of them, an 83-year-old World War II veteran, said, looking at my press badge, “that Russia will never be its colony!”) were also nearby, flanked by the wry and rowdy hipsters from Leprozorium (“Leper Colony”), a closed and harshly meritocratic web forum famous for cultivating some of the Russian internet’s stickiest memes. Jumping up and down, they chanted “Fuck, you’re tall! Fuck, you’re tall!” at the 6-foot-8-inch Mikhail Prokhorov, the third-richest person in Russia and a newly minted opposition presidential candidate, whose head loomed over a scrum of people eager to ask him about orphanages, corruption, and Soviet history.

All around these islands was a sea of grandmothers, of the middle-aged, of the well-heeled, the more modestly compensated, and, of course, the office plankton. It was bitterly cold on Saturday afternoon in Moscow and, huddling under a steely sky flecked with white balloons, people drank whiskey from flasks and tea from thermoses; they jumped in place to keep warm. As on Bolotnaya, the speeches coming from the stage — though clearly audible because of speakers placed along the avenue — were almost of secondary importance. It wasn’t about the speakers, some of whom, like former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, were booed; people talked politics among themselves, periodically stopping to join in the chanting of a slogan echoing from the stage.

And yet, despite the obviously bigger numbers than the protest earlier this month, many of the people I spoke to today didn’t sound like they were at the biggest display of civic upswell in 20 years. Gone was the euphoria, the ebullience, the anger. The people who came out to Sakharov Avenue were more muted than the crowds of Bolotnaya a fortnight before, and despite the friendliness in abundance — a rare sight when so many Muscovites cluster so closely together — there was a calmness and a quiet that Bolotnaya, its air crackling, did not have. Even the polite and peaceful police presence, such a novelty on Dec. 10, didn’t even merit a shrug.

At Bolotnaya, when everyone was surprised by the fact that so many thousands of other traditionally atomized Muscovites coalesced to voice their frustrations, there was something of a sense of elation, a delight in discovering that people who share the same frustration existed, and existed in such large and friendly numbers. In the two weeks since, however, a lot has happened. That surprise, that “now-now-now” euphoria, has morphed into a firmer sense of civic entitlement. The opposition has banded into various squabbling organizational committees; it has learned how to handle negotiations with the mayor’s office; how to raise money for sound equipment; how to give people a say in the lineup of who will address them at the protest; and how to better harness social networks into disseminating information. Contrary to the near universal expectation that this amorphous and motley crew would fracture and do itself in by squabbling, the diverse movement has surprised everyone, including itself, with its growing sophistication.

Part of the reason is that it has also tasted success. In the two weeks since Bolotnaya, the government response has gone from messy and panicked to largely symbolic gestures — tossing the infamously crass Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov under the bus and handing some parliamentary committee chairmanships to the “loyal opposition” — to the beginnings of something that’s starting to look like actual concessions and, more shockingly, real change.

In his four-hour live question and answer session on Dec. 16, Vladimir Putin floated the idea that Russia may see a return of elected governors, though a strange device called a “presidential filter.” (Gubernatorial elections, done away with in 2004 under the pretext of fighting terrorism, have been the signature of Putin’s centralized — and now wobbling — political system.) This week, Dmitry Medvedev, still formally president, delivered his final state of the nation address to the country’s political elite. He laid out plans for political reform, including the direct election of governors, something that would begin to address the deafness, inflexibility, and ineffectiveness of Putin’s power vertical. “People are tired of having their interests ignored,” Medvedev said. “I hear those who talk about the need for change and understand them.”

Today, while however many tens of thousands stood around on Sakharov Avenue — a protest echoed in dozens of cities around the country — Sergei Naryshkin, until recently the president’s chief of staff and now the new Duma speaker, went on television to suggest that maybe they didn’t need a “presidential filter” after all, that maybe political parties’ own selection process was enough.

Even the official rhetoric has begun to shift away from insinuations of American provocation and Putin’s swat at demonstrators that their white protest ribbons reminded him of limp condoms. Today’s statements from top United Russia officials steered clear of insulting the crowd, choosing instead to focus on their leaders, and to hint that, maybe, they had come out not to get State Department money, but because they had legitimate grievances. “It’s obvious that there is a huge chasm between those Russian citizens who came out to protest, and those who address them from the stage,” said United Russia deputy Irina Yarova, in a press release sent around by the party on Saturday afternoon. The participants, according to Yarova, are “simple” and “sincere” — a far cry from Putin’s assertion that they had come out in exchange for money. Alexander Khinshtein, another United Russia deputy, spun it a different way. “I think that the existence of the opposition is testament to the health of the country,” he said, pointing to the “ripeness of our political system.” Compare that to the pre-Bolotnaya talk of provocateurs, traitors, and other characters unworthy of direct dialogue with the state.

That is not to say that many things, many of the most important things, will be left unchanged: The deeply fraudulent parliamentary elections of Dec. 4 won’t be nullified and held anew; Vladimir Churov — the odd and flamboyantly partisan “magician” in charge of the Central Election Commission — shows no signs of resigning (he’s a childhood friend of Putin); and, come March 4, unless things completely come apart, Putin will win the presidential election. He will still be the deeply conservative, change-averse, hands-on Putin; the system will still be deeply corrupt, unresponsive, and weak.

That said, there’s three months to go — and there’s still the chance, however much it shrinks with each peaceful protest protected by extremely civil police officers, that things could explode into violence and screw-tightening.

But, if the people who have been coming out despite the cold this month — 100,000, for Putin’s Russia, is still an unimaginable amount (most protests in the last decade drew no more than a brave few hundred) — don’t fall asleep on March 5 when their slim hopes are dashed by Putin’s victory, if these small victories make them hungrier rather than nauseous, if the surprise at discovering that one’s political opinions are not at all singular or marginal does not sour when the number at these protests inevitably plateaus, then Putin’s system, come 2012, will already be a very different one. It will find itself dealing with a new constituency whose wizened, suspicious regard for his maneuvers will make them harder and harder to trick, which will therefore make it more and more necessary for the system to actually deal with them, and take their concerns seriously.

And perhaps, if this new protest constituency can be trained by its experience to see small concessions as big successes, perhaps the political system and political life can finally become somewhat “normal” — the utterly subjective gold standard for Russians. “We’re setting a precedent,” said Alexei, a 25-year old computer programmer, shivering in the cold. “The reason the word ‘politics’ always had this negative connotation in Russia is because there was an understanding that we’re not going to get involved in it, especially not as decent people. We want to give the word a different connotation, so that a decent person doesn’t have to get red in the face when he says the word ‘politics.'”

Won’t Get Fooled Again [FP]

The Condom-nation of Vladimir Putin

Friday, December 16th, 2011

MOSCOW – Russians had not really seen Vladimir Putin since his ruling United Russia party was walloped, at least by Russian standards, in the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections. Since then, Moscow, and the rest of the country, had been rocked by anti-government — and anti-Putin — protests. Tens of thousands of previously politically inactive people pinned white ribbons to their coats and came out across Russia to contest the elections, expressing their displeasure at being treated like idiots by the Kremlin for the past decade. Up until Thursday, the Kremlin’s reaction to this outpouring implied either panic, denial, or both. Putin remained well out of sight. He spoke through his spokesman in vague, contradictory statements, and, once, in a meeting of his People’s Front, blamed the protests on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, claiming she had sent Russians a certain “signal.”

This self-imposed almost-silence ended today, in a four-and-half-hour telethon that marked Putin’s first real public appearance since his glitsy thermidorian system started to unravel at the edges, and in it Putin made sure to address the outrage that drew more crowds to the streets than Russia has seen since 1993. Soothing words were not what he offered. “To be perfectly honest,” he said, “when I saw something on some people’s chests, I’ll be honest — it’s not quite appropriate — but in any case, I thought that this was part of an anti-AIDS campaign, that these were, pardon me, condoms.”

Yes, that’s right: in case Russians hadn’t been offended by years of brazen maneuvers and bland television tailor-made for the lobotomized; in case they hadn’t been insulted by the glib switcheroo of Sept.24, when Putin and his handpicked successor as president, Dmitri Medvedev, announced they would simply swap positions; in case the crudely falsified elections and the baton-happy police hadn’t angered enough people; Putin compared their symbol of peaceful protest, those white ribbons neatly pinned on lapels, to an unwrapped and doubled-up condom. On live TV.

The Russian Internet, not surprisingly, was quick to fire back. First to circulate was a diaphanous condom in the shape of a folded ribbon; then came Putin standing stuffily in front of a Kremlin nightscape, an unraveled condom photoshopped onto his coat. (“Happy holidays, friends!” the postcard said.) Another web parody offered a prediction: a deficit of condoms in the city on the eve of Dec. 24, the day of the next scheduled protest. Sergei Parkhomenko, a journalist and one of the organizers of the upcoming demonstration, even proposed a new slogan for the rally: “You’re the gondon.” In Russian, gondon is slang for condom — or asshole.

Putin hardly stopped with his condom remark. Over nearly five hours in a TV studio taking questions from his public as part of an annual ritual, he often returned to his favorite theme: Western conspiracies to weaken Russia, to “push it to the side,” or, as he characterized the wave of protests now unfolding around him, “a well-tuned scheme to destabilize societies” that “doesn’t come out of nowhere” — like Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. As for the protesters, Russia’s once and would-be future president pointed out that “there are, of course, people who have the passport of a citizen of the Russian Federation, but act in the interests of a foreign government using foreign money. We have to try to find common ground with them, too, even though it’s often pointless or impossible.” And then there were the mere mercenaries in those peaceful protesting crowds. Putin said he knew that there were college students who received money to come to Saturday’s 50,000-person protest — “fine, let them earn a little money” — even though the only college students reported to have received money were those populating the pro-Kremlin rallies of the last weeks. (I met one such young man, 23-year-old Mikhail, a member of the pro-Kremlin Nashi group who came with his opposition-minded friends to the anti-Kremlin protest on Bolotnaya Square. He told me had been paid to show up and talk people out of their anti-Putin sentiments. His logic explained Putin’s, to some extent. “I get paid for my time,” Mikhail told me, when I asked why he thought his friends were lying when they said they didn’t get money from the U.S. State Department. “Why shouldn’t they?”)

Leaving aside the constant repetition of this trope, as well as that of the evil West (which “underestimates our nuclear rocket potential”), and evil America (which killed Qaddafi), and evil John McCain (who “has blood on his hands”), the one topic — the “red thread,” according to the host — that Putin had to keep coming back to was Saturday’s protests across Russia. He tried, as best as he could, to leave aside the issue after offering bland blanket statements about citizens’ rights to express their views, as well as backhanded comments about the opposition, which, according to Putin, “will always say that elections were unfair. Always. It’s a question of political culture.”

But it kept coming back. For a while he tried to spin the protests. “There were different kinds of people there, and I was happy to see fresh, healthy, intelligent, energetic faces of people who were actively stating their position,” he said. “If this is the result of the Putin regime, then I’m happy. I’m happy that these kinds of people are appearing.” He said this twice, echoing the loyalist television celebrity Tina Kandelaki’s statement that those who came out across the country were “Putin’s generation,” a crowd of middle-class democrats made possible by his policies. (A fine theory, if one disregards the frequency with which “Putin, resign!” rolled loudly through the crowds.)

Eventually, Putin did his best to try to dodge the issue. “For God’s sake, if it’s so interesting to you, then I’ll discuss it,” he said after the host gently steered him back to it. If it wasn’t the host, it was the questioners themselves, who seemed less scripted than in previous years. And, if they weren’t asking about the protests and the falsified elections, they were asking about the deafness and corruption of their local authorities. Putin offered some promises of reform: Direct election of governors — eliminated in 2004 — but only, as he put it, through “a presidential filter” (i.e., only those candidates vetted by the president — him — will be allowed to stand for election.) No new parliamentary elections — which, of course, would be logistically impossible — but webcams installed at polling stations at the next one.

Clearly, this was an uncomfortable new position for Putin. The live question-and-answer session, a marathon of good-tsar populism, is a longstanding tradition and is Putin’s favorite format. For ten years, he has swanned through rehearsed, tee-ball questions from his adoring populace, using the occasion to graciously solve a crisis for an elderly veteran or punish an errant regional authority. He was used to being charming, confident, wry. He was Putin. This year, he approached this sublime state only when tossing figures and percentages around like confetti — one Russian journalist called him a “random number generator.” For the most part, he was less than fluent. He stumbled. He interrupted people with jittery, flat jokes. His spin sounded less like spin, and more like the excuses of a truant caught red-handed. He was, in short, nervous.

And yet, there was little Putin could do with his nervousness aside from channel it into insults (see: condoms) and paranoia (see: foreign funds). This is a telling response, and representative of the state’s reaction to the post-election furor: some dubious concessions — like removing the infamous Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov and promoting Kremlin ideologue-in-chief Vladislav Surkov out of his position — but, on the whole, retrenchment and reliance on classic Kremlin tactics. On Tuesday, for instance, we saw the owner of the Kommersant publishing house (which publishes the most important Russian daily) fire one of his top executives and the editor of the political magazine Vlast over a photograph of a ballot on which someone had written, in red ink, “Putin, go fuck yourself!” Two other top editors resigned in protest.

The unmistakable feeling, watching all this, is that either the Kremlin knows nothing else, can think of nothing else, or is too panicked to find its thinking cap and slap it on. Asked if it was true that emergency meetings were convened in the Kremlin after the initial wave of protests, Putin said, dubiously, “I was not invited to these meetings, I don’t know. I’ll say honestly that I didn’t notice any panic.” He was, he added, busy. “I was at that time, speaking frankly, learning to play hockey,” he said, referring to himself as “a cow on ice.” “I wasn’t really paying attention to what’s going on there. And I haven’t been there [in the Kremlin] for a while, frankly speaking.”

Outside the Kremlin, however, Putin’s insult-filled telethon had the unintended effect of galvanizing an opposition that had been showing signs of fracturing. During the Putin marathon on TV, RSVPs for the December 24 rally spiked on the Facebook page dedicated to it. Users barraged it with comments about how Putin’s snide and anxious performance had pushed them over the edge.

And it’s true that Putin had nothing but contempt for them. “Come to me, Bandar-logs,” Russia’s ruler told his perhaps befuddled viewers at one point in his bizarre show. Putin was comparing the newly energized opposition to the foolish, anarchic monkeys in “The Jungle Book.” The ones who chant “We are great. We are free. We are wonderful.” (“I’ve loved Kipling since childhood,” crooned Putin.) Facebook did not take kindly to this. “What say you, Bandar-logs,” one journalist quipped. “Shall we go prowling?

The Condomnation of Vladimir Putin [FP]

Nine Days That Shook the Kremlin

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

MOSCOW — At around midnight on Saturday, Dec. 10, while much of Moscow had long since fallen into a collective happy, drunken swoon after some 50,000 representatives of the urban middle class successfully came out to protest the results of Russia’s Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, Ketchum, the American PR agency hired by the Kremlin, sent out a news release. It came from Dmitry Peskov, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s longtime press secretary.

“What we witnessed today was a democratic protest by a section of the population who are displeased with the official results of last week’s elections,” Peskov said. “In the past few days we also witnessed demonstrations by other segments of the population who were supporting those results. We respect the point of view of the protesters, we are hearing what is being said, and we will continue to listen to them. The citizens of Russia have a right to express their point of view, in protest and in support, and those rights will continue to be secured as long as all sides do so in a lawful and peaceful manner.”

Given the scale of the Moscow protest and the demonstrations by thousands more in dozens of cities all over Russia — the largest by far since Putin came to power nearly a dozen years ago — it was a strange and strangely muted response. It was not as strange, however, as what Putin said earlier that day, also through Peskov. “The government has not yet formulated a position,” he said.

One person, however, had. On Sunday, President Dmitry Medvedev took to his page on Facebook — the nerve center of the protest’s organization — and said the following:

Under the Constitution, the citizens of Russia have freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. People have a right to express their position, which is what they did yesterday. It is good that all took place within the framework of the law. I do not agree with the slogans or the statements made at rallies. Nevertheless, I have given the order to check all instances from polling stations regarding compliance with the legislation on elections.

This was truly bizarre. What, after all, did the president of Russia — at least president until next year, when Putin proposes to swap jobs with him again — mean by it? And, odd too, not least because of the extraneous, redundant reminder that citizens have the right to freedom of speech and assembly, a right Russia’s rulers have not often been eager to proclaim. The equally strange worry — mostly on the side of the Kremlin — that Saturday’s protest, which had been permitted by the Moscow city government, would end in bloodshed seemed to imply that everyone, including Putin and Medvedev, needed this reminder. Then there was the constant marveling (including on state-owned Channel One, which on Saturday finally acknowledged that these protests exist) that the demonstrations had happened peacefully, in accordance with the law.

Perhaps the main issue was simply one of credibility: Medvedev, already about as lame a duck as a president can be ever since Putin announced in September his plans to return to the presidency in the 2012 elections, has personally, and grandiosely, ordered many investigations into scandalous things, and none has resulted in much. (Last fall, Medvedev promised to investigate the case of journalist Oleg Kashin, who was savagely beaten. He even promised to Kashin to “tear off the heads” those responsible. “Sitting here, smoking my pipe,” Kashin joked on Facebook.) Perhaps this is why so very many of the nearly 13,000 comments on Medvedev’s Facebook post this weekend were negative. “This is called detachment from reality,” one commenter said. “You need to go see a psychiatrist.”

“The president’s response is ridiculous,” Igor Yurgens, head of a Moscow think tank closely associated with Medvedev, told me. “‘I don’t agree, but we’ll figure out.’ That’s not an answer.” So far, none of the protesters’ demands, from registering new parties to freeing those arrested in protests earlier last week, Yurgens pointed out, have been taken seriously.

Indeed, the trickle of official statements since the Saturday protests implies that the Kremlin is either stalling or brushing these demands aside. One of the protesters’ demands was that Vladimir Churov, Putin’s childhood friend and head of the Central Election Commission, be fired. He has denied well-documented election fraud and said the reams of video evidence being put forward by activists since the elections were faked by being filmed in apartments made to look like polling stations. For his services to the state, Medvedev, to his everlasting Internet shame, called Churov “a magician” last week. Yet on Sunday, the Central Election Commission shot down a proposal to consider Churov’s dismissal.

Another demand was new elections. On Friday night, the eve of the big protest, the commission certified the results. On Monday, Peskov dismissed not only the possibility of new elections but the possibility of a recount. “If we take into account this so-called evidence, then they’ll account for about 0.5 percent of the overall number of votes,” he said. “Even if, hypothetically, every single complaint is proved in court, they would still not affect the overall outcome of the vote.” Russia’s prosecutor general voiced a similar view.

And speaking of the Russian Constitution, the ruling United Russia party had a rally in Moscow on Monday called “Glory to Russia!” to celebrate Constitution Day. The party promised a crowd of 30,000 people, perhaps to prove Putin right that there were just as many happy with the elections as there were who were outraged. According to the police, 25,000 people showed up. According to various reporters on the scene — and according to photographic evidence — there were at most 2,000. Many attendees had been bused in, a common tactic. “I don’t know why the fuck I’m here,” one young man told a reporter. “It’s for television. These fucking KGB guys, they’re lying to people on television, promising everything and doing nothing. I don’t fucking need this. They canceled our classes for us to come here.”

Given the money poured into loyalist youth groups — and the money spent on busing in young bodies — Monday’s rally was an epic flop. It is also a testament to the ineffectiveness of United Russia’s stubbornly sticking by its old and less-than-convincing tactics. The staged rallies are complemented by rhetorical gymnastics, parroted up and down the United Russia food chain, that smack of denial at best. Never mind that Saturday’s were the largest anti-government demonstrations since the fall of the Soviet Union, the line goes; they were nothing unusual. What’s 50,000 people, after all, in a city of 12 million?

Putin and Medvedev, meanwhile, are clearly trying to buy time, though in a less-than-organized fashion. “Putin is obviously stalling,” said political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, who until recently worked for Medvedev and helped Putin win his first presidential election, in 2000. “Medvedev rushed to say something negative, but Putin said he’s thinking about it. I think that’s the right way to go about it. They’re frightened, and this has been good for the state because it has forced them to start thinking about its actions instead of going with the usual knee-jerk reactions.”

Pavlovsky, who has told me he is deeply disillusioned with an uncharacteristically mistake-prone Putin, also pointed to the lack of violence and chaos at Saturday’s rally. “This was maybe Putin’s first correct step this whole year,” he said of the Kremlin’s decision not to crack down on protesters the way they did on Dec. 5 and 6, arresting nearly 1,000 people in two days. “The day of [Saturday’s] protest, everything was done right from the point of view of maintaining power. If the Kremlin tried to fight it, it would now be in a deep, deaf, and probably bloody siege. Will it continue to do the right thing? — that’s the question.”

Certainly, the Kremlin has shifted its rhetoric, starting out after the first post-election rumblings with vague warnings of “provocations” and civil war, to the more recent claim that many who came out on Saturday were simply curious, one-off rubberneckers. Still, there’s a sense Russia’s rulers haven’t fully grasped the scope of the dissatisfaction they’re dealing with among a largely well-heeled, well-educated, white-collar crowd.

Some insiders clearly sense trouble. On the eve of Saturday’s protest, Vladislav Surkov, first deputy presidential chief of staff and the man who micromanages Russian politics and media, summoned a who’s who of the loyal intelligentsia to discuss unfolding events — a sign that he gets it. Yet those present at the meeting haven’t exactly been offering soothing words about compromise. Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of Russia Today, said dismissively that the next protest, planned for Dec. 24, will draw fewer people “because people have to go buy presents.” Maxim Shevchenko, an anchor on state-owned Channel One, in a riposte titled “Answering Fools,” said the best course is to let the opposition have its protests in order not to make martyrs of them. “They are no one and have to remain no one,” he wrote.

Still, Monday brought some evidence of compromise. United Russia announced it is ready to cede some of the leadership posts in the Duma to the parliamentary opposition. Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who was fired by an irate Medvedev in September, said in an interview with the Russian business daily Vedomosti that he was ready to head up a liberal political party, presumably one catering to the largely white-collar crowd — lawyers, doctors, consultants, finance workers, graphic designers, engineers, and the like — that came out on Saturday.

Then, in a surprise and very telling twist on Monday afternoon, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov announced his intention to run for president in March 4’s election. Over the summer, he tried to run exactly the kind of party Kudrin is now suggesting, but quit in frustration as the project quickly and loudly jumped the rails, for reasons that seemed to boil down to the Kremlin’s insistent desire to control it and Surkov’s rather intensive curation of the project. At the time, Prokhorov announced that he wasn’t planning on leaving “big politics,” and his return suggests that the Kremlin has allowed him back in order to distract from Saturday’s events or to give people an option of a somewhat credible alternative. This would help defuse tension so that protests don’t further mar Putin’s one-man presidential race — which, let’s not forget, he will win — and which will allow him to campaign without further antagonizing the already antagonized white-collar crowd.

As for the white-collar crowd (“office plankton,” as they’re known in Russia), many of these newcomers to political activism are now promising to come out again in two weeks, on Christmas Eve. Most likely there will be fewer people than there were on Saturday because it will be colder, because the Kremlin will throw them some scraps, because they will lose interest, or because there’s still no one on the Russian political field who represents them. As most of them take pains to point out, this is no Arab Spring, and they are no revolutionaries, just some people who have woken up and who want into the system. “Alas, it will be a protest vote,” said one young office worker when I asked him about what new elections — should they happen — would look like. “And, unfortunately, there still won’t be anyone in the Duma who will represent my stance for the next five years. But it’s a step. It will happen in steps, and that’s OK.”

That, despite its alarmist rhetoric, is exactly what the Kremlin is banking on now. As Pavlovsky put it to me, “This doesn’t smell of revolution.”

Nine Days That Shook the Kremlin [FP]

The Decembrists

Friday, December 9th, 2011

MOSCOW – Tonight is the first night without protests here since some 6,000 young people gathered Monday night to express their frustration with the electoral fraud in Sunday’s parliamentary elections and, more broadly, the institution of Putinism. They came out again Tuesday night, where they were met by thousands of drum-beating pro-Kremlin youth activists. And again on Wednesday. Nearly 1,000 people were arrested, and many of them — including anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny, a political rising star since he coined the phrase “Party of Crooks and Thieves” to describe Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia — are still in jail. Moscow is filled with tens of thousands of extra Interior Ministry troops and armored personnel carriers, and the city’s skies crackle with the sound of helicopter blades.

But what’s next? In short: No one knows. Sure, the Russian blogosphere is deep into planning the next protest, scheduled in Moscow for Saturday and which, according to the Facebook group created for it, more than 30,000 people are planning to attend, and Yandex, the Russian search engine, has posted a map pinpointing the addresses and times of protests scheduled all over Russia. But, meanwhile, the Western press is scrambling to tag this phenomenon with something, anything — the “Slavic Spring,” “OccupyKremlin,” or “White Revolution” for the white ribbons organizers are handing out — to make it digestible, classifiable, understandable.

Neither the scope, nor the trajectory, nor the efficacy of the growing wave of protests is clear, and predicting, or even gauging, their success is still impossible. What is quickly becoming apparent, however, is that whatever is happening now is very real, and very different from anything that has happened in many, many years. Something, in short, has changed — essentially overnight — and there is no going back to the day before.

At least nominally, the protests are about contesting the outcome of Sunday’s elections. There is some substance to this, as each day brings more and more eyewitness accounts of electoral fraud, of carousels, of ballot stuffing, of dead souls voting. There is a sense that, were it not for such tricks, United Russia would not have gotten even the paltry 49.5 percent of the vote that the authorities claim. In Moscow, according to an exit poll by FOM, a Kremlin-friendly pollster, United Russia got 27 percent, a far cry from the national average. Moreover, the people who came out on Monday night — surprising both the Kremlin and the protest’s organizers — were people who had participated in those elections. For many of them, it was a concrete issue (feeling duped) rather than an abstract one. Perhaps this is why the numbers were so shockingly large by Moscow standards, which has up until now seen only sparse and largely radical or elderly crowds of a few hundred. (Though it should be said that protests over other tangible things, like foreign car imports or monetizing pensions, were always well populated.)

So what changed? It wasn’t simply that people were afraid to get involved and now aren’t. The axiom that people felt that it was pointless to protest was, in large part, true. For years, polls showed well over 80 percent of Russians did not believe they could influence the political process. And, for the most part, they were right, not least because people who do not participate — either because they don’t want to, or because they’re disincentivized from doing so — can have little effect. The lack of incentives to participate was important, and it was by design. So, too, was the official Kremlin line, which boiled down to this: After the chaotic and ruinous 1990s, the country needed stability and material comfort, while democracy and other such nebulous things could come at a later, unspecified time.

Ironically, the problem, at least for Putin now that he seeks to return to the presidency he first assumed on New Year’s Eve 1999, is that he did provide the promised stability and economic benefit to many people, both intentionally — by raising pensions, for example — and unintentionally, as commodity prices took off during his initial tenure as president. This flooded state coffers, lined his friends’ pockets, and at least some of it trickled down. For people who experienced the penury of the 1990s, these rivulets — small as they were compared to the billions the new Putin set of oligarchs was making — were nothing to sneeze at.

Yet it also meant this: Stability worked in ways Putin might now be paying for. As Robert Shlegel, a young Duma deputy from United Russia and commissar of the pro-Kremlin Nashi movement, told me a few days ago, “We have a middle class now. It may not be as big as in Germany and France, but it exists. And the quality of the needs in towns has changed, from how to survive to how to live. They have what to eat and what to drive. The question now is how to live with dignity and justice.” That may sound like straight out of a political theory textbook, until you consider what he said when I called him on Thursday to ask about the growing protests. He recalled a conversation with a friend who said he planned on going to Saturday’s demonstration. “I said to him, ‘What is the problem? You have a job, you have an apartment, you have a car. What else do you need?'” Shlegel recounted. Why, in other words, are you suddenly violating your end of the social compact of the 2000s: You get richer and buy cars and take vacations, but leave the politics to us.

What else do you need? As could be seen at the week’s mass protests, and in the Twitter and Facebook blizzard in the days that followed, what these young, educated, urban, middle-class Russians of the Putin era need is exactly what Shlegel said they needed: dignity and justice. And not the lofty definitions of those words that one often hears in Washington. I mean something more basic: a state that trusts and respects its citizens, a state that sees its people as citizens rather than as bydlo, or cattle — as the common saying goes in Russia. When Russians describe their political system today, the phrase they most often use is ruchnoe upravlenie, or manual control — which, of course, implies an utter lack of both those things.

So we are right back to Russia’s historical problem, one that bedeviled both tsars and communist commissars before Putin: What to do with a liberal, educated, well-traveled elite that orients itself toward Europe and its democratic traditions — but that is an elite nonetheless, separated from the rest of Russia by a massive chasm in outlook and upbringing as well as aspirations? We’ve seen this story before, and, inevitably, the conflict does not end well for those involved. (See, for example: the 1825 revolt of the Decembrists, the 1917 October Revolution, the 1956 “thaw” of Nikita Khrushchev, and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.)

The people who came out to protest here this week were the representatives of this elite. It’s no coincidence that the center of organization for these protests is Twitter and Facebook, two platforms used almost exclusively in Russia by that very refined, and removed, slice of society. They’ve done well in the last decade, but they’ve also become increasingly fed up with being lumped with, for lack of a better term, the cattle. A breaking point seemed to come on September 24, when Putin announced the grand swap: His plan to switch places and resume the presidency while have his puppet successor, Dmitri Medvedev, take his job as prime minister. “September 24 was the signal,” says Igor Yurgens, head of the INSOR think tank, once see as Medvedev’s brain trust. “The feeling was, they can’t do this. Six, most likely 12 years with no discussions, no consultations. Even the Communist Party, when they picked the general secretary, even though it was totally clear that they would install whomever they wanted, there were still party meetings across the whole country. Even with the understanding that they’d get their person, they still worked on building consensus. Here, in one day, two people — but most probably one person — decided the next decade without anyone else.”

The response to this moved quickly. First, there were anguished calculations of how old people would be when Putin finally left the presidential throne, then numerous incidents of booing United Russia and even Putin himself, and, finally, the protests of the last week. The slogans were less about United Russia, and the farce of the elections hardly got a mention on Monday night. The main target was Putin and the brazen cronyism — and brazen brazenness — of his system. “Russia without Putin!” shouted the crowds. “Putin is a thief!”

This is also why people who had never voted before, or hadn’t voted in many, many years, went to cast a ballot this time around. The results, despite the forgeries and the trickery, at least accurately reflected in some way United Russia’s sinking poll numbers, and this seemed to have been the push the class of the fed-up needed: it showed them that if you go out and participate, even in a crooked system, something, even something small, can come of it. (The results, by the way, were very deeply telling when broken down by region. For example, among the areas that really swept United Russia back into power were the republics of the North Caucasus; areas, plagued by an Islamic insurgency, that are flooded with Kremlin cash -places where money for loyalty still seems to work.)

The other question, of course, is what will come of this unrest. The official response, despite Putin’s admissions of “losses” and vague promises of new reforms, so far, has been more of the same. It didn’t help when Medvedev and Putin proved dismissive of reports of electoral fraud, or that the top election official in the country, the openly partisan Vladimir Churov, flat-out denied electoral fraud and darkly accused the opposition of working for “dollars.”

On Thursday, Medvedev was finally pressed into calling for a full report to investigate electoral violations, but we’ve seen all too well how his personally demanded reports work out: the report, for example, that he ordered into the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in police custody resulted in Magnitsky himself being named as a party to the fraud he was trying to investigate when he was arrested, and in medals for the police officers who, quite likely, killed him. And what did Putin say about the electoral losses suffered by the party created to support him? “Putin has never been directly connected with the United Russia party since he is regarded as an independent politician,” his press secretary told the BBC.

And the protests? Putin acknowledged them on Thursday, which, given the fact that his television stations haven’t, means they’re actually important. “While going by the vast majority of our citizens, we need to have a dialogue with those who are oppositionally minded, give them the opportunity to speak their minds, giving them their constitutional right to protest, to formulate their opinions,” he said at a meeting of his People’s Front. But Putin also reminded people not to be naïve and hinted, as he has in the last two weeks, at shadowy connections to the West. “When you’re talking about people who leave for America, and get some training there, get some money, acquire some equipment, and then come back here and spend their time being provocateurs, dragging people out into the streets,” he said, “even these people cannot be measured with a single yardstick.”

It was a clear rebuke to two parties. One of them was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had expressed her concern with the way Sunday’s elections had gone down. This, Putin said, was “a signal” to the opposition — a fifth column, in Putin’s KGB-minted mind. “They heard the signal, and with the support of the U.S. State Department, began active work.”

The other swipe was at the very people that Putin proposed talking to: the opposition not lucky enough to win seats in the Duma. There is, for example, former prime minister Boris Nemtsov, who spent time teaching in the United States. And Navalny, who did a six-month fellowship at Yale. This is a standard Putin bogeyman, an easy way to deflect blame and to discredit whomever he’s up against. As for dialogue, Putin certainly didn’t have in mind negotiating with opposition figures like Nemtsov and Navalny. “He means the parliamentary opposition,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who, until recently, worked for Medvedev, and helped Putin win his first presidential election, in 2000. “He has never taken people like Nemtsov and Navalny seriously. He sees them as nihilists and anarchists. He’s mistaken about them, of course, but there really is no consolidated opposition and there really is no one for him to talk to.”

And that, unfortunately, is true. The protesters, as massive as Saturday’s gathering promises to be, are still a diffuse group with no formulated demands. What do they want? A vote recount? A new election? Putin’s ouster? Good luck. Tonight, in a compromise with the Moscow city government, the protest was moved to a different location, which caused a minor war among the opposition, which in recent days, has been remarkably unified. This kind of squabbling over tactics, and whether or not to compromise with the authorities, will severely hobble the movement, too.

So far, the Kremlin has been buying time — keeping the protests off television, leaning on liberal media (like RainTV) and social networks to cut off oxygen to the protests, dismissing them as a vocal minority trying to impose its view on a majority happy with its apartments and cars. But Saturday promises to be the day when both the opposition’s approach and demands, as well as the Kremlin’s response crystallizes.

“I suspect the situation will be very serious on Saturday,” says Yurgens. “If the Kremlin has enough brains to enter into discussions, to form a coalition government, to fire the current government before the elections, there’s a chance. But if they just carry on as if nothing happened, we can expect rough times ahead.” Gennady Gudkov, an outspoken Duma deputy with the Just Russia party, agreed. “If they carry on like nothing happened, if there’s one more election like this, there won’t be a country anymore,” he says. “If the government doesn’t react, the protests won’t go away. They’ll simply take another form, and it will boomerang back to the Kremlin.”

As for the opposition, things are also unclear. Even if Saturday is a success, what next? What are its demands? And how long can this wave of protests keep going, and to what end? So far, no one, not even those leading the protest, knows.

Originally, Saturday’s big event was supposed to take place, fittingly, on Revolution Square, in the shadow of the Kremlin. For the past week, there have been orange and yellow banners there celebrating the 70th anniversary of the defense of Moscow. It is a strange anniversary to mark, and, in the absence of any unifying ideology, World War II has been a standard theme to harp on in Putin’s time. But it’s worth noting that the defense of Moscow worked mostly because a harsh winter literally froze the Nazi machine in its tracks. So far, Moscow has had a rather mild winter, with sunny skies and temperatures hovering above freezing. Should they dip, it may make protesting under the Kremlin’s walls much more difficult. Tahrir Square, after all, had the benefit of a Mediterranean clime.

Gudkov, the rabblerousing Duma deputy, doesn’t agree. “I don’t think people will be scared of the cold,” he told me. “Cold has never stopped people here. Look at the October revolution, the February revolution. When did the Decembrists come out? Whenever it gets cold in Russia, it only heightens people’s activity. I wouldn’t play around with that.”

The Decembrists FP]

Election Hardball, Kremlin Style

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

On Sunday, Nov. 27, when Vladimir Putin accepted United Russia’s nomination to be its presidential candidate, he mentioned something in his acceptance speech that seemed to come out of left field. “The representatives of certain foreign governments gather people to whom they give money — so-called ‘grantees’ — whom they instruct, find them ‘suitable work’ in order to influence the result of the election campaign in our country,” he said, adding that “Judas is not the most respected biblical character among our people.” It was old-school, West-bashing, Cold War-invoking Putin at his best.

It was also, it turns out, very carefully aimed. Over the weekend, as United Russia waved its flags and cheered its leader, two journalists from state-controlled television station NTV showed up at the offices of Golos (“Voice” or “Vote”), the only Russian NGO with the means and credibility to monitor elections. The uninvited film crew came to sit in on a training session for volunteers and, according to Golos’s accounts, made quite the entrance. They watched a Golos training video and interviewed the organization’s director, Lilia Shibanova (as she told me, “aggressively”), asking her about her organization’s connection to the CIA.

The next day, the same journalists arrived to find Grigory Melkonyants, Golos’s deputy director. They stuck a camera in his face and started yelling at him about the etiology of his salary (the United States, naturally) and alleging that Golos was attempting to disrupt Sunday, Dec. 4’s parliamentary elections. The resultant video, recorded on Melkonyants’s phone, quickly went viral when it made it onto the web a couple of days later. It shows the two screaming at each other: NTV insinuating sordid connections to shadowy Western organizations, Melkonyants repeating over and over and over again: “You are Surkov’s propaganda.” (He was referring to Vladislav Surkov, the architect of the power vertical, creator of United Russia and Nashi, and a man who makes Karl Rove look like a professional dilettante.) The repetition of the phrase — 84 times in all — was designed to make the footage unusable for the kind of hatchet pieces NTV airs on figures who suddenly fall from official grace.

The half-hour film segment, called “Voice Out of Nowhere,” finally made it onto the air Friday, but not before three Duma deputies wrote a letter to Russia’s prosecutor general, alleging that Golos’s newspaper breaks the law by “giving direct assessments of the progress of the election campaign in our country.” Furthermore, the organization, the deputies allege, is merely a shell organization for the U.S. Congress and State Department to influence internal Russian politics. The deputies’ demand? Shut Golos down.

A statement by Vladimir Churov, head of the Central Election Commission and loyal Putin defender, followed, claiming that Golos was waging a campaign against United Russia. There was the sudden removal of a banner on Wednesday from the liberal Internet newspaper advertising its joint project with Golos: an interactive map tracking all election law violations submitted by users. (Asked whether had been pressured to remove this banner, Editor in Chief Mikhail Kotov only said, “I’d rather leave this without comment.”) Then, Friday, in a hastily scheduled court hearing and verdict, Golos was found guilty, during just one morning session, of abusing media privileges — and ordered to pay a roughly $1,000 fine.

Golos, which, with its vast network of volunteers carpeting Russia, has been an invaluable resource to journalists covering Russian elections, has never denied that it receives foreign funding. “We survive on foreign grants because the government will never finance the kind of work we do,” Shibanova told me this week. “But the money does not influence our results.” She readily listed the mosaic of grants, large and small, that make up Golos’s roughly $2.5 million election-year budget: the U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Democratic Institute, British and Scandinavian embassies, the European Commission. Nor does she deny that Golos observers often pose as journalists in order to get into the polling stations, something she says is impossible to avoid after the passage of a law, in 2005, banning all election monitors except those sent by the parties themselves, or journalists. “Of course we pose as journalists!” Shibanova said. “What else can we do if you ban any public observers and allow in only representatives from the parties themselves?”

This is not the first time election observers have faced trouble in Russia — European monitors generally have a difficult time getting accredited to cover Russian elections, and this year was no exception — but the scale of the attack on Golos is unprecedented. It also fits into the context of an increasingly brazen campaign in which government officials and offices — like Churov’s Central Election Commission — openly and unapologetically use their positions to campaign for United Russia. Or in which United Russia officials openly promise voters money directly proportional to election results. It is rather odd, for instance, that Churov steps in so openly for just one party — United Russia — which clearly has the lion’s share of the advantage, as well as the financial, administrative, and media resources of the state, essentially, at its behest. “Before, they at least tried to hide this,” says political analyst Maria Lipman, of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Now, not only are they not hiding the fact that they’re waging electoral campaigns from their desks and offices inside the government — they’re showing it off.”

But heading into Sunday’s vote, the Kremlin isn’t just showing off its political will, administrative might, or even hubris and blunt honesty about what the process really is; it’s also flaunting, albeit inadvertently, a fear of what that vote on Sunday might reveal. How else can one explain an otherwise sophisticated, cleverly nuanced system — Surkov, unlike Rove, fetishizes the post-modern — suddenly falling back on the crassest of methods? How else can one explain the explicit directive given to the foreign-news translation service within the state RIA news agency not to publish pieces critical of Putin and United Russia ahead of the elections? What happened to the state media system’s brilliant shortcut of self-censorship? And what to make of the sudden prominence given to Western spooks, in Putin’s speech, in the official letters to the prosecutor’s office, and in nearly identical language? (“We have special services, and we have all the data about NGOs’ being sponsored by foreign states,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary told me. “We have all the information, let’s say, about some recommendations coming from the foreign states. Already we know NGOs that will start shouting on the 5th of December” — the day after the elections — “that these elections are not legitimate without paying any respect to the results.”)

On Friday, still-president Dmitry Medvedev issued an appeal to his subjects. “How long will it take you to go and vote?” he asked. “Half an hour? An hour? But this hour will determine what kind of parliament the country will live with for five whole years.” Will it be a parliament “torn apart by constant contradiction, unable to solve anything, as we’ve already seen in our history?” Medvedev asked, invoking the old bogeyman of the 1990s. Or will it be a parliament where “the majority will be responsible politicians [read: United Russia deputies] who can actually improve the quality of life?”

Whatever kind of parliament the Kremlin gets on Sunday, Surkov will find a way to work with it or around it. But, given the public rumblings of the last two months as well as the Kremlin’s crass response, it seems that the Kremlin is increasingly uncertain about how its citizens will spend that hour.

Election Hardball, Kremlin Style [FP]

Putin and the Boo-boys

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

MOSCOW – With a week to go until Russia’s parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin took the stage on Sunday, Nov. 27, in front of 11,000 hooting, flag-waving United Russia delegates. He delivered a vigorous, nebulous speech about how long he has served his country (his whole life) and led a few cheers (when I say “Russia,” you say “Hoorah!”). Then he formally accepted the party’s nomination to represent it in the March presidential elections, which he will win in a landslide. It was both a formality and a preemptory victory lap, as well as a strange repetition of the September party congress, at which he and still-president Dmitry Medvedev agreed, essentially, to swap places. But if September’s convention — held at the same Moscow sports arena as the one yesterday — was a curve ball, yesterday’s festival of triumphalism was both expected and bizarre.

“This optimistic tone does not correspond to the depressive, anxious mood of many in the country right now, and it was unclear who it was aimed at,” says political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, who helped Putin win his first presidential election, in 2000. Pavlosvky pointed out that Sunday’s fanfare smacked of the “pre-crisis” era — that is, the end of Putin’s first, petroleum-fueled run as president. That chest-thumping tone was fine then, says Pavlovsky, but “today, it just looks anachronistic.”

Much has changed in the years since Putin formally stepped down from the presidency. With Medvedev’s arrival came talk of modernization, a détente with the United States, a bit more oxygen in the system. But in the two months since the Medvedev-Putin swap — which seemed to dismiss all of that goodwill as formalities — something else has changed, too: What was once easily classifiable as public apathy has quickly fermented into a very palpable dissatisfaction, and it is one that is increasingly breaking through the surface, even in places where it is not expected.

The most notable — and most symbolic — of these bubbles has been the “booing revolution.” It started earlier this month with a concert by a legendary Soviet rock group Mashina Vremeni (“Time Machine”) in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, which was going well until an emcee announced that the concert had been sponsored by the ruling United Russia party. He couldn’t finish his speech because the sudden wave of booing was so loud. Later, the local authorities threw the emcee under the bus — they were not sponsoring the concert, and he was just a provocateur — but Kemerovo started a trend. A couple of weeks later, at a Cheliabinsk hockey game, the captain of the local team (“Tractor”) skated onto the ice and read a speech praising United Russia and the Cheliabinsk governor. The crowd didn’t stop booing until the player had skated back to the bench. Afterwards, Tractor’s fanclub clarified that “we were booing not Antipov [the team captain] who read that speech with a sour face, but the situation itself, the governor of Cheliabinsk, and United Russia with its inappropriate attempt to promote itself.”

The main event, however, came on Nov. 20, when Putin showed up at a Moscow stadium for a mixed martial arts fight between Russian Fedor Emilianenko and American Jeff Monson. Emilianenko won, and Putin decided to congratulate his compatriot by climbing into the ring and praising him as “a real Russian knight.” The problem was that few people could hear him over the sound of 20,000 people booing and shouting “go away!”

When the video went viral, Putin’s press secretary called a quick press conference to explain that the people in the stands were actually booing Monson. But hearing this, Russian fans took to Monson’s Facebook page to leave shout-outs of “respect” from different corners of Russia. “Jeff,” one Russian fan wrote, “all whistles were only for Putin and for his party — they are the greatest thiefs in our history [sic].” Many of these Facebook fans were not at the fight that evening, but the fact that they — and those who were — gave Putin his first public drubbing ever was highly significant: martial arts have always been Putin’s hobby cum official, heavily patronized state sport, and its fans have always been a loyal legion. This was not, in other words, the liberal intelligentsia shouting him down; these were Putin’s own guys. It is also hard to take Putin’s spokesman’s explanation seriously if you consider the way the fight and Putin’s back-patting were televised nationally: the crowd’s booing was carefully sliced out. (Another telling detail was that Putin simply did not show up to two similar events later in the week, where he was listed as the headliner.)

The numbers tell their own story. United Russia, the party created to support to Putin but of which he was never a member, has been sliding in the polls. On the eve of the last parliamentary elections, in 2007, it was scoring a firm two-thirds in national polls. This time, it is hovering just above 50 percent, having lost nearly ten points just since May. But these are national polls. In many regions — in St. Petersburg, in Astrakhan, in Kaliningrad — United Russia is doing far worse. These are also regions where, to everyone’s surprise, A Just Russia, a party created by the Kremlin, in 2006, to siphon off left-wing votes, is taking on a life of its own with vibrant, popular candidates who are addressing local issues in a way that governors appointed by — and subservient to — Moscow simply cannot.

The official response to these rumblings is similar to one that we saw in the municipal elections, in August, in St. Petersburg, where in response to United Russia’s abysmal ratings, the party brazenly barreled through any sense of propriety and legality to deliver 90-something percent results for its candidate.

This autumn has seen this unapologetic approach embraced nationwide. In Izhevsk, a city in the Ural Mountains, the mayor told a group of veterans that the amount of money they receive in the future will be directly proportional to the results they deliver for United Russia on Dec. 4. Then he outlined the earnings brackets. In Chuvashia, in the Volga River basin, a polling station was made into a United Russia shrine. In Astrakhan, United Russia promises voters an election day raffle in which the prizes are two new cars. And in Moscow, campaign posters for United Russia were nearly identical copies of billboards put up by the federal Central Election Committee to get out the vote. Asked about the unsavory, and likely illegal, coincidence Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin asked the reporters interviewing him to put aside their naiveté. “Why pretend?” he said. “Of course we are not separate from political parties. When we talk about United Russia, we mean that the Moscow city government and party are, in fact, one entity.”

While such tactics are evidence of what one source here called a “deer in headlights” feel in the couloirs of Moscow, it is also a testament to a fed-up-edness outside. This time, however, there is a key difference. The wider public know about most of these violations because voters have registered them on their smart phones, which means something crucial: they understand a violation of electoral law when they see one. In the video of the mayor of Izhevsk’s speech, for example, you can hear the person holding the camera saying, “Oh, wow. You’re violating the constitution, and electoral law!” It’s not quite challenging election law at the Supreme Court, but the simple act of recording such a speech and posting it online, of registering a complaint that a polling station is advertising one party alone, shows an understanding of what is and is not acceptable — and an interest in seeing such things done properly.

This runs counter to one of the central theses of Putinism: that Russians are not yet ready for democracy, which is why it has to be carefully managed by a steady hand. This idea, known for a time as “sovereign democracy” and now as evolutionary, no-more-shocks democracy, made an appearance in Putin’s speech on Sunday, as did a new trifecta of the system’s values: “truth, dignity, justice.” It is a slight update on the chicken-in-every-pot theme of stability, but events on the ground seem to point to the fact that Russians are increasingly savvy — and sensitive — to being taken for fools by their authorities, and that promises of stability and prosperity are ringing hollow as the chaotic 1990s fall further and further behind, and as real issues born of the current system have taken their place. This echoes, in some ways, the inflection point in the post-War Soviet Union, when the ideological argument of historical perspective lost its bite.

It is also a sign of political ripening. “Politics” is still a dirty word in Russia and is defined as a mucky battle for power, but there is a growing recognition that it is also a tool for changing one’s daily circumstances. In Moscow, more people are talking about going to vote for somebody, anybody, than four years ago, when it was deemed pointless. The dissatisfaction with United Russia officials in the regions is perhaps a sign of a growing understanding that truth, dignity, justice — and even bread-and-butter stability — depend on a process of transparency, accountability, and fairness. And that Vladimir Putin, no matter how wonderful, cannot and has not really addressed the fact that, say, the growing cost of utilities is fast outstripping pensions. “There’s a growing interest in economic and local issues, while interest in ideological issues is decreasing,” says Pavlovsky. “The power structures in the regions are too weak to deal with them, because when a local boss decides what to be scared of — Moscow, or his subjects — he’ll pick Moscow.” This is the fatal flaw of the power vertical slowly coming home to roost.

But it would be a mistake to take this restlessness for a sea change just yet. The resentful mood is a sign of many things, but it is still too early to tell if this germ will sprout, or sour. And here, the numbers tell a story, too. Much has been made of Putin’s slipping approval ratings. Only 31 percent would vote for him for president, according to the independent Levada polling center. But his closest rival is the communist Gennady Zyuganov — with 8 percent. Still a landslide. As for Putin’s approval ratings, they have, in fact, fallen, from 80 percent — to 67 percent. That’s an approval rating that most world leaders don’t have on the best of days. (A euphoric week after Barack Obama was sworn in, his approval rating was 65.9 percent.)

Despite any political ripening born of annoyance, Russians are, on the whole, still not making a crucial connection. A significant and growing portion of Russians recognize the long-term concentration of power in “one set of hands” as a danger, and see a cult of personality forming around Putin. The number of Russians who see the government as a center of corruption has more than doubled over the last decade, to almost one third. And yet, Putin’s approval rating is an enviable, healthy 67 percent.

And this indicates that, in spite of everything, the system is still working pretty well. The Internet, key to propagating election violations and fomenting discontent, has made huge inroads in Russia, but it has still not tipped television, where Putin reigns supreme, into irrelevance. Many people were outraged and distraught by the thought of Putin unabashedly coming back to power, potentially for another 12 years, but two-thirds of them aren’t. A Byzantine, corrupt electoral system still keeps those who could become a vessel for this discontent from being listed on the ballot.

What’s left? The street — and very few people are gathering there as of yet. “It’s a mood, not a movement,” says Masha Lipman, a political analyst with Moscow’s Carnegie Center. “This dissatisfaction is not becoming action, at least not on a large enough scale. The fact is, the system has a colossal advantage in that they’re dealing with a society that so loves to talk and to discuss and to joke and to snark, and yet is so bad at organizing itself.”

It’s still too early to tell whether this kind of organization will ever happen or if it could reach a critical mass. If United Russia doesn’t hand itself a victory grossly at odds with its poll numbers (it avoided making this mistake in 2007), chances are the system can hobble on a good while longer. Just how much longer, though, may depend on how long they can take the booing.

Putin and the Boo-boys [FP]

Meet the New Putin, Same as the Old Putin

Friday, October 7th, 2011

MOSCOW — Speaking at the Russia Calling! investor conference, hosted by state-owned VTB Capital, on Thursday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin tried to reassure both Russian and foreign investors that, despite Russia’s recent political uncertainty, despite the tanking Russian stock indexes, despite the sliding ruble, despite more money than usual fleeing Russia, despite the bad to worse news coming out of Europe, despite all this, everything in Russia is going to be OK. The future is clear and under control.

“I’d like to speak about our priorities, about Russia’s strategic plans, so that investors and business can understand the logic and motives of our behavior, especially now, in these uncertain times,” Putin said. “And, of course, it is exactly in such times that the trust of our partners is so important. And you — we understand this — need predictability and openness.” His speech was flecked with the vocabulary of reassurance. Soothing phrases like “we understand,” “we see,” “we know” broadcast the image of a captain at the wheel, steering the ship of state past all that ice in the water because, don’t worry, he sees it.

Putin had already tried to smooth these choppy waters two weeks ago at the conference of United Russia, his ruling party, by announcing his return to the presidency, potentially for 12 years. The point was to erase the uncertainty that had the bureaucracy playing musical chairs all summer and return some stability to the system. But that quickly backfired. “Brezhnev” and “stagnation” quickly became the words of the day, and not two days later, Alexei Kudrin — finance minister and darling of the West, whose conservative budgetary policy had saved Russia from calamity in 2008 — was fired by a jumpy Dmitry Medvedev. The plan to stabilize things had, in other words, opened up a whole new can of entropy. Or, as one prominent Western investor in Russia described the whole thing in the couloirs of yesterday’s conference, “Yeah, it was a fuckup.”

Thursday’s performance was a take two of sorts. Putin seemed to be speaking not only to the class of people who squeegee money around the world, but to a broader audience of those who wonder what’s in store for Russia with another decade of Putin on the horizon. Putin’s answer today was, in so many words, that Putin’s back, and he’s the same Putin he’s always been.

“Changes are, without a doubt, necessary, and they will happen,” Putin intoned from the podium, “but it will be an evolutionary path. We don’t need great shocks, we need a great Russia!” Responding to a question about the growing number of Russians wishing to emigrate, Putin said:

Both I and the acting president Dmitry Anatolievich Medvedev have sent a clear and precise signal to the country: We are not going to destroy, mangle, or demolish anything. We’re going to develop our political system, but we want to strengthen its fundamental foundations. We have lots of political bustlers — faster, higher, stronger, use your saber to chop this, hack that. But we’ve already gone through this. We’ve seen this several times in our history: We’ll destroy everything, and then? And then what?

“We’ll build a new world, whoever was nobody will become somebody.” We all know these words [from the Internationale] from our childhoods. And what came of it? What came of it is that, in the 1990s, everything collapsed. So all of this “hack,” “chop,” “run without turning back” — we have to put an end to all this. We have to calculate, carefully pinpoint the destination point of our progress, and confidently move in that direction. That is how we should act, and I’m certain that that’s when your mood will change, too. It’s not an easy task, but we can do it. We can do it!

Here, certainly, is the language of a Russia traumatized by a revolution whose pain is still all too fresh. But it is also the language of Putin the standpatter, and invokes his favorite straw man: the 1990s. There are many people in Russia — people now in their thirties, for example, or the educated, urban elite — who remember the 1990s as a golden age of liberation. Not so for those who fell into penury, or for Putin. Reared in one of the most conservative organs of the Soviet state, the KGB, Putin saw the change of the 1990s as a destructive, negative force. (Which, of course, it was, too.) His spin-doctors use this narrative to legitimize the stability of Putin’s own era: the peaceful golden years after the storm.

This story gives the people a reason not just to trust one strong leader, but also to trust in incremental, shuffling, even glacial change. Yesterday, addressing the need to decrease the role of government in the economy, Putin said, “We will gradually — I want to emphasize this, gradually — start to extricate ourselves from the capital of state corporations.” Putin doesn’t like responding immediately to public pressure. Putin doesn’t like firing people. When Medvedev fired two of his loyal generals — Kudrin last month and Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, in 2010 — Putin was publicly silent. But those close to him spoke of a rankling discontent with this very public act of firing a standard bearer for a rash remark. For the sake of unity and loyalty — two more Putin obsessions — Putin had to abide by his president’s actions. Had it been Putin’s choice, however, he would have promoted them out of their post (as he just did, in fact, with Medvedev).

This is why Putin addressed the issue of Kudrin’s firing as he did. During his prepared remarks, he only obliquely referred to the recently departed finance minister. He spoke of Russia’s growing currency reserves and increasing rainy day funds, which Kudrin insisted on during the good times of the last decade. The policy incurred the wrath of United Russia, which wanted to spend more on bread and circuses, but it was these cushions that saved Russia when the world economy tanked in 2008 and dragged Russia down with it. Kudrin’s firing at such a volatile time unnerved investors: Would Russia now spend its money willy-nilly, making the Russian economy even more vulnerable to swings on the world commodities markets? Once again, Putin reassured investors. “Our priorities — and I especially want to emphasize this — have been and will continue to be budgetary discipline and increasing the effectiveness of spending, as well as limiting the growth of government debt,” Putin said. Don’t worry, investors: Kudrin may be gone, but Kudrinism stays.

But when he was asked by a Scandinavian investor about Kudrin’s firing, Putin said something a bit different. After pointing out that Kudrin is one of the foremost financial specialists in the world, Putin began by saying, “Personally, he is my very good friend, with whom I have maintained very tight, close relations over the course of many years, beginning in the 1990s.” Loyalty, 1990s.

Then Putin let it out: “It’s well-known that the decision was made by the president. It was made because Alexei Leonidovich made a series of incorrect statements about the fact that his position does not coincide with that of the president. What else can I say?” After distancing himself from Medvedev’s decision, Putin turned the knife. “I want to tell you — this is my opinion, and the opinion of President Medvedev — despite this emotional malfunction, Alexei Leonidovich remains a member of our team, and we will continue to work with him. I hope that he will work with us. He is a useful and needed person.” More useful, that is, than the walking “emotional malfunction” that is Medvedev.

As if Putin hadn’t humiliated and negated Medvedev enough over the last two weeks, here was one more opportunity to show that the president was president only because of a technicality. As Kommersant pointed out, just the title of “the acting president” — which was how Putin insisted on referring to Medvedev throughout his forum appearance — was a slap in the face: “Actually, one speaks about a person like this only after the election,” Kommersant said. The title puts a sand timer on the title bearer’s head, as well as on all his “emotional” decisions. This is what Putin intended to do on Sept. 24, but Medvedev foiled it by asserting his — now purely technical — authority.

Yesterday, Putin put an end to all such attempts. Make no mistake, investors: He is the president de facto. No more emotional malfunctions. To underscore that, he picked up the themes that had been seen as Medvedev’s pet projects: fighting corruption, promoting nanotechnology and innovation generally, and diversifying the economy away from dependence on natural resources. The purpose was twofold: to show that the Kremlin would not abandon those (very necessary) initiatives, and to show that, all along, they had been Putin’s. Change would continue the way it had always been happening, slowly to the point of it being indistinguishable from inaction, and festooned as always by pretty rhetoric.

At the end of the performance by the de facto president, Andrei Kostin, the head of VTB, his host at the conference and, apparently, his very exuberant fan, thanked him. “Vladimir Vladimirovich! You have a very momentous period ahead of you, and I’d like to wish you not just success, but the most conclusive success!” Kostin said, red and beaming. “Investors vote not just with ballots, they vote with investments. I think that, in half a year, there’s enough time to figure things out and invest in the Russian economy.”

So far, they’ve voted by taking $50 billion out of Russia so far this year, beating every prognosis for capital outflow. Perhaps the next six months — roughly the time Medvedev has left as “acting president” — will be different from the other months, when he was just acting.

Meet the New Putin, Same as the Old Putin [FP]

Twilight of a Seat-Warmer

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

MOSCOW — Late on Thursday night, Sept. 29, after a week of snickers and open mockery, a decision was made: The president — that is, Dmitry Medvedev — would go on television and explain himself. Why had he, an acting president, with another seven months left in his term, gone up to the podium at the United Russia convention five days earlier and said, “It would be the right thing to do for the convention to uphold the candidacy of Vladimir Putin for the presidency.” Medvedev, never a figure of strength and masculinity in a country obsessed by such things, seemed like he had been dragged through the mud and humiliated — especially when Putin took his turn at the podium and announced that the decision had been made years ago. That one phrase seemed to negate Medvedev’s three-and-a-half years in office. Medvedev looked like a broken man: His face was bloated, his eyes ringed with fatigue or misery — despite the near-constant smiles. At times during his speech, it seemed like he might cry.

Seeing a man down — a man long suspected of being a dauphin, a seat-warmer for Putin — public opinion pounced. “Well, at least it’s Putin, and not Putin,” snarked KermlinRussia, the popular parody of Medvedev’s Twitter account, highlighting the now uncontestable fact that Putin and Medvedev were and had always been the same person. (A few days later, Kermlin followed up with this zinger: “This is an unconscionable act toward journalists, who had spent four years training themselves not to call Putin president.”) Citizen Poet, the satirical project of poet Dmitry Bykov and actor Mikhail Efremov, cast Medvedev as a hapless, childish Hamlet and Putin as the ghost of his father. The apparition appears and answers Hamlet/Medvedev’s indecision — “To be, or not to be?” — with a simple, “You won’t be.”

When Medvedev fired Alexei Kudrin, the finance minister known to be extremely close to — and thus protected by — Putin, his rant about presidential authority convinced no one, not even Kudrin, who responded to the president’s request for his resignation that he would consult the prime minister. That is, Vladimir Putin. The blogosphere did not let that one pass, either. A new joke began to make the rounds: “I’ll consult the prime minster,” says Kudrin. “No, I’ll consult the prime minister,” says Medvedev. (In my version, they race each other down the hallway to his office.)

It was not a good week. And so the presidential spinmeisters made the decision to put their man on television, to let him explain himself — an unheard-of proposition in Russian politics.

The broadcast — a roundtable interview with the heads of the three biggest state channels — aired on Friday night. Prime-time shows were rejiggered and swapped out around it. Russian viewers saw their hobbled president, resplendent and sad in a cobalt suit, surrounded by the three graying, skeptical, almost nauseous-looking TV execs in Medvedev’s lush library, just outside Moscow.

The first question came from Konstantin Ernst, director of Channel One, Russia’s most important state channel. “What was the primary motive behind your decision?” asked Ernst, of the Sept. 24 announcement. “Usually, presidents seek reelection. You are a politician, and politicians are ambitious people. What was your ambition in making this decision?”

Medvedev’s response was puzzling: “My biggest ambition is to be useful to my country and my people.” Was the implication that he was not useful to his country as president? Had he not been useful this whole time? He didn’t say.

Then Medvedev said something even worse: Putin and he are of similar outlook, and as they belong to the same party, why not just figure it out between the two of them? It’s not so unusual, Medvedev said, leaning heavily, awkwardly, on the Russian rhetorical tactic known as America-does-it-too-ism: “Can you imagine Barack Obama competing with Hillary Clinton?” Medvedev said. “That would be impossible. They both belong to the Democratic Party, and their decision was based on who could get better results. And this was also how we made our decision.”

It’s a novel analogy, given that it proves exactly the opposite of what Medvedev wanted to prove. As one prominent Russian journalist put it, “Who told you such a stupid thing that you decided to go and repeat it to the whole world?”

If that weren’t unconvincing enough, Medvedev gave another reason: “Prime Minister Putin undoubtedly remains the most popular politician in our country at this point, and his rating is even higher. Somehow, people tend to forget about that.”

That one is tricky. Yes, Putin is technically more popular than Medvedev. There has always been a relatively stable gap in their poll numbers. Pundits both here and in the United States spent the weekend trying to crunch the numbers, trying to explain a dip here, a bump there. But somehow people forgot something else: Ratings, like everything else in the Russian political system, are not truly ratings, but simulacra.

“I have to tell you something,” Oleg Savelev said to me once. Savelev is a sociologist at the Levada Center, one of several polling centers that monitor such data. “Our numbers don’t track public opinion; they track the effectiveness of propaganda.” That is, he went on to explain, if television weren’t centrally formulated and subject to heavy self-censorship, if newspapers had wider circulation, if the Internet had a deeper penetration, the numbers would probably look very different — which is precisely why all those soft controls exist in the first place.

Since the very beginning of the tandem experiment, public opinion has been formed in only one direction: Medvedev is weak and nerdy; Putin is strong, manly, decisive. Medvedev plays with gadgets; Putin rides Harley-Davidsons, shoots tigers. Medvedev deals with forest fires on the phone; Putin is on the ground talking to the people and walking through the smoldering embers. Three girls come out in miniskirts for Medvedev; scores of them strip for Putin. It’s no contest, because Russians aren’t that different from Americans in this respect: The show matters, and people love a winner. And the poll numbers show exactly this. Putin is always more trusted. He is so trusted that, ironically, Russians are even more likely to see Putin, the architect of the power vertical, not Medvedev, as the ostensible liberal, as the guarantor of democratic freedoms.

If invoking the technicality of poll numbers was circular, the rest of Medvedev’s interview was a total wash. Asked why someone who had repeatedly spoken of his desire to run for a second term and then suddenly, inexplicably, changed his mind, Medvedev said: “Everything may change in this life. It’s true we have long had an understanding on how to configure the power, should our people show us trust in 2011 and 2012. It’s true, and we said so at the party convention. But at the same time, life could have made unexpected and paradoxical changes to our plans. What if the preferences of the voters change, for some reason? I must take this into account.”

In other words, it would have only been possible for him to run if voter preference — expressed not at the polls but in hall-of-mirrors polls — had swung suddenly in his favor. Compare this with what he told the Financial Times in June: “I think that any leader who occupies such a post as president simply must want to run.”

Why, Medvedev was asked, should voters even bother going to the polls if everything has already been decided for them? “I consider [such statements to be] absolutely irresponsible, misleading, and even provocative,” he said in a stiffly practiced manner. “What are you talking about? The election campaign has just started. Let’s ask ourselves a simple question: What if our people reject us — both Medvedev and Putin? What will happen to these decisions by the convention? These decisions are merely the party’s recommendation to vote for those people, that’s all.”

Apparently, he’s in agreement with the commentary of the chair of the Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov, who said last week that the results of the presidential election are unpredictable. I have no comment for either of them.

Does he feel pressure from the Internet, of which he is such an avid fan, asked the head of NTV? “Of course, Internet polls and their results are not legally binding for governments. Nor do they accurately reflect public opinion.”

Are people becoming indifferent? Has television — and this really was a fine question, coming from the heads of state TV stations — degenerated into bread and circuses? Politics on TV, Medvedev said, is “a clear sign of poor living standards. The better our life is, the less attention people will pay to that, because they are more or less happy with their life.” No political interview could really be complete without the invocation of the thoroughly post-Soviet premise that politics are bad and dirty, and that the effective decisions are being made without the mess of politics. You, good citizen, may have no impact on the political process, the thesis goes, but you can buy as many iPhones as you want — thanks to the fact that we’re handling all this for you.

When the interview was over, half an hour later, Medvedev looked like a man who had finally gotten a lot off his chest. Perhaps it had been therapeutic. But was it therapeutic for Russians? I doubt it. No one except the people who talk about the minutiae of Kremlinology even talked about it. Medvedev seemed to be slowly receding from the news and, perhaps worse, from jokes. Talk around town is not about what sort of prime minister he’ll be, but how short a term he’ll serve before he is phased out. Some wonder whether he’ll even be named prime minister at all.

In the meantime, after the political chaos of the last two weeks, things are calm in Moscow again. It’s quiet and boring again; stability is once again upon us. But already, the outlines of the next phase are starting to show. On Oct. 4, Putin, writing in a paper, Izvestia, owned by an old friend, introduced an ambitious new project: the Eurasian Union, a wide zone of economic and political cooperation in the post-Soviet space.

Medvedev still had some work to do, too, though: He fired a couple of prison officials and toured some barracks in Nenets autonomous okrug. Back in Moscow, the Duma was discussing Medvedev’s proposed legislation to deal with pedophiles. His novel suggestion? Voluntary castration.

Twilight of a Seat-Warmer [FP]